Matrix Organization

There are many ways to organize groups of people. Generally, these tend to fall into one of four general categories. These are hierarchy, anarchy, rhizome, and matrix. Most people are familiar with the first. The second is fairly commonly known, although more often then not the person simply believes they understand it. The third and fourth are becoming more popularized, but remain fairly unknown. Among those who are interested in the formation of communities, methods of group organization other than hierarchy are more commonly known, but not necessarily well understood.

The first method of organization is hierarchy. We are all fairly familiar with the basic organizational scheme of hierarchy. Each person in a hierarchy is assigned a rank in comparison to everyone else in the hierarchy. Those at the top gain the most benefits and do the least work. The people at the bottom do the most work and gain the least benefits. Unfortunately, most people are at the bottom. Hierarchy innately causes a disconnect between people in a hierarchy. This disconnect causes feelings of alienation and anomie. Hierarchy also necessitates slavery to some degree. The most advanced civilizations tend to export their slave labor, but it is never done away with.

Despite poplar opinion among people interested in community, hierarchy does offer some advantages. First, hierarchy is more efficient at performing mundane, repetitive tasks. It does stifle creativity, and it does exhibit slow information transfer and response time when compared to organizational schemes in which everyone is equal. But for tasks relying on methodical precision without variation, hierarchies organize people more effectively than any of the other methods.

Hierarchies also allow a group of people to effectively overcome Dunbar’s Number. Since each individual member only needs to be aware of the people immediately above and below them in the hierarchy, the whole of the hierarchy can consist of more than 150 people without any individual person having to know more than 150 people.

Anarchy is, literally, without leaders. Arkhos being the Greek word for ruler, and “an-” is a prefix meaning without. Anarchy is not synonymous with chaos. Anarchy comes from chaos. The theory is, essentially, people without rules or structures will form social taboos and mores to form themselves into egalitarian groups. Ultimately, anarchies begin as chaos and end up as one of the other three schemes for organizing groups of people. Anarchy is a middle step that is occasionally used rather than a destination.

Rhizome is a network of loosely related, independent nodes. As such, organizing a community internally as a rhizome is impossible. A community is, by definition, a group of interdependent nodes (typically each node is a person). Whereas a rhizome is, by definition, independent nodes. These two states are mutually exclusive.

It maybe possible to organize a group of communities together in the format of a rhizome, indeed this may be ideal. A rhizome organization scheme cannot have slaves as members of the rhizome without ceasing to be rhizome. It also ensures individual freedom for each node. Theoretically, it can offer faster information transfer and response time than any other methodology.

However, there are two features limiting the usefulness of rhizome. First, a group of communities organized as a rhizome have no unifying principle or structure. This means they have tremendous difficulty working in concert. It would take an immense outside force working against the interests of every part of the rhizome to motivate them to work together. Some people may not see this as a problem, while others will.

Secondly, rhizome is completely subject to Dunbar’s Number. The whole of a true rhizome cannot be larger than 150. Only by introducing some elements of hierarchy can this limitation be overcome. Such an element maybe a charismatic leader, an authoritarian, or some other element. But if the leader has power over the system, the system is no longer a rhizome. It has either become a hierarchy or a mixed rhizome. Mixed rhizomes tend to either develop into true hierarchies over time, or else completely disintegrate into a chaotic or anarchistic state. This depends on whether or not the person exerting power can effectively maintain it throughout their lives and whether or not they can transfer that power after their deaths.

Matrix organizations require interdependence to properly function, the same as a community. In a matrix scheme there is rotating leadership based on proficiency in regards to the specific task being undertaken by the group. So, if the community is building a structure, the community’s best architect is the “boss.” Everyone follows the lead of the best architect because he is the most competent to organize the effort. Not out of some variation of coercion. This helps prevent the problem of the “boss” having limited or no competency in the task they are leading the group to accomplish. Also, no one takes advantage of their position as leader, because when dinner rolls around, the best cook is going to be in charge. And tomorrow the architect is helping to make clothing, and the best seamstress will be in charge. The secret of this structure is that everyone in the structure is generally competent in everything the group does. Some people simply have additional skill in certain fields.

In matrix organization, Dunbar’s Number serves as a limitation of efficiency rather than a limitation of size. After 150 people members of the group may begin to question whether or not the person “in charge” is actually the best possible person. After all, they no longer necessarily know each other. So, internally to a community a limit of 150 people is still preferable.

In between communities, matrix organization allows for the various communities to be interdependent, which encourages them to work more closely together. The problem with having so many people in a matrix organization is finding a non-hierarchal method for picking who will take lead on a particular project.

One way is to have a group of people whose job it is to keep records of everyone and to select the boss. But this creates a hierarchal structure out of matrix structure.

A better way might be to introduce occupational societies. Obtaining the highest levels of competency in some fields requires considerable training. This training is best provided by people who are themselves very competent in the field being taught. An occupational society, consisting of everyone in all the various communities who have a high level of competence in a given field would be ideal for the teaching of people interested in that field. But, more fundamentally, if one or more communities wants to build a monument, they no longer need to know who would be the best choice to lead the design and construction of the monument. They only need to know they should ask the occupational society responsible for building monuments. Then the occupational society picks from amongst themselves who is the best choice to take the lead on the new project.

This way everyone in every community only needs to know the societies and what they do. There is no need to know everyone individually, without relying on a central authority to tell someone to obey. And so Dunbar’s number does not cause problems.

Typically I am in favor of matrix organizational schemes internally to communities. Between communities either rhizome or matrix will probably be the best choice. The question is whether the communities in question will be in the same over-all organization or whether they are simply trading partners.

-Benjamin Shender


  1. sara mcgrath said,

    November 21, 2006 at 8:11 pm

    I would distinguish between a ruler and a leader, because I think that there are significant differences, at least when we’re talking about true leaders, ones who are followed because of their qualities.

  2. Aftermath said,

    November 25, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    A valid point, although a very difficult one to quanitfy. At what point does a leader’s authority make them a ruler? What makes someone a leader? Are leaders born? What qualities make someone a leader? What qualities make someone a ruler? Is a ruler a leader? Etc. It is a question that interests me, but not one that I was prepared to weigh down an article on Matrix Organization with. But since you bring it up, what do you think?

    -Benjamin Shender

  3. December 1, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    […] Here are is a really cool post about other structures including matrix, anarchy, rhyzome (and hierarchy). Definitely a good read to learn about all of this *stuff*. […]

  4. carry said,

    June 11, 2007 at 9:04 am


  5. Aftermath said,

    June 13, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Hmmm….I think that your comment does not indicate a desire for conversation or comment, but in case my first impression was wrong: why do you disapprove of organizational psychology and behavior?

    -Benjamin Shender

  6. David said,

    August 20, 2007 at 10:34 am

    excellent and raffinate post, congratulation
    i’ve worked for years in a multinational hierarchical company untill i’ve recently joined a wide, complex, multinational company organized in matrix.
    Besides the cultural shock, i see the delicacy of the matrix the way is intended in my company. I wouldn’t want to annoy people in the blog but I would feel priviledged if we could exchange some ideas.

  7. Aftermath said,

    August 20, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Not at all. Exchanging ideas is one of the things we’re here for. And I would be interested in hearing about your experiences in a business run as a matrix.

    -Benjamin Shender

  8. David said,

    August 22, 2007 at 4:43 am

    i would like to ask your opinion, based on the academycal analyses that you’ve done above, on how you would see my company organized in matrix. This before I vitiate the discussion with my reservations/remarks on the reality that I’m living. It could be an interesting exercise.
    If you agree, as follows the principles.
    My department consists of around 50 people. I’m responsible for a geographical area and there are 6 areas in the world where my company operates. The department is responsible for acquiring, operating and controlling distribution services within its own area of responsibility. The organization is part of the holding that also sources products and sells them. There are 3 main organization within the holding: product purchase, distribution and retail.
    The intention, within the distribution organization, is to have its functions centrally steered. My department is basically divided in 4 main sub departments: purchase, operations, controlling&finance and environmental and social responsibility. Every sub department has a dedicated manager. I am managing all of them but the functional responsibility of each sub dept is left to a central category manager.

    Do you have enough elements to elaborate on the organization and its optimal structure? Where is the most delicate aspect, in your opinion, in this set up? Is the definition of roles and responsibilities crucial in every aspect of the organization?

    I apologise if my English may not be adequate but it’s not my language. Thank you.

  9. Aftermath said,

    August 23, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    The definition of authority is crucial in any organization. Every member of the organization needs to know what they are being held responsible for by the remainder of the organization, otherwise misunderstandings, mistakes, and dodging responsibility are inevitable. It seems like your general setup is to divide and subdivide the company by the functions the company performs. Retail, distribution, and product purchase are functionally different, although interrelated. And each of these are further divided. One of the aspects of matrix that is most difficult to grasp is the functional difference between policy authority and task authority. The person or group with policy authority has the job of generally directing and coordinating the various functions of the organization. However, once a task is assigned, the person or group with task authority takes over. They were chosen because they were the best suited to handle the task, and are therefore granted a high degree of autonomy, so long as it does not interfere with the rest of the tasks being performed. This is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of a matrix. The strength comes from the ability of the group to adapt to changing situations and to improvise as necessary without having to take the time to get it pre-approved, at which point the improvisation may be redundant, or worse, it may actually cause more problems than it was intended to fix. However, it is a weakness because matrix organizations are still relatively new and rare. This means that the people in them are typically inexperienced. This might lead to those with policy authority hindering those with task authority. Or, it may inhibit the initiative of those with task authority. Another possible problem is that those with task authority may hinder the work of others with task authority. If the matrix survives long enough those with task authority will learn to prevent this from happening on their own, in order to keep themselves from being hindered with as much as to keep themselves from hindering. Until then it falls to the person with policy authority to ensure the interchange between those with task authority remains smooth and seamless.

    – Benjamin Shender

    P. S. I could keep going but I have to run now. And your English is certainly good enough for me to understand you so far. Its certainly better than my grasp of any other language.

  10. arvie said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:12 am

    can you please explain it briefly? hehehe…

  11. Vikas Sinha said,

    April 19, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    hi, i am a student of management and i am not able to understand the which principle of organsing dose matrix organization break? Please explain

  12. Aftermath said,

    April 22, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    As used here, it breaks hierarchy. As an organizational scheme it arranges everyone on a single level. The power structure then becomes a matter of give and take as opposed to the more oppressive methods of hierarchy.

    – Benjamin Shender

  13. Rakesh R said,

    January 7, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    What boundries must be broken to acheive a boundry-less organization

  14. Sasha said,

    July 29, 2010 at 9:04 am

    I’m a developer in a company that does migration from hierarchy to matrix structure during latest one of two years (there are more than 1500 people in company), and both I’m a buisiness cofounder of a small construction company (about 10 permanent roles and up to 50 people working simulteniously). In construction buiseness those who works permanently based on hierarchy and some contracts passed to matrix. In development company most based on hierarchy, but there are some newly formed deparments of “matrix people”. In development company we exactly what was said “we have a group of people whose job it is to keep records of everyone and to select the boss” (this is my matrix manager who says whom should be the project manager for the next quarter). There is also a manager of my matrix manager who shares few matrix-groups (each about 15 people). My current project manager also have his own manager in his own management hierarchy who shares the subprojects of big projects between groups in some way. For me the mess is that all of these four managers are friends thinking of bonuses in terms of role/project/people-quantity/success-criterions without thinking enough of arhiterture/tasks/fast-solution/best-role. Nobody of these managers involved enough in tasks the developers/arhitects/analysts doing that means that they have no way choicing the best role for tasks. In such a structure if I’m seeing that the task of my competency is being solved absolutely inefficiency by someone, then I’m waiting till this someone tired. If I say some hearing that there is a better solution of this task, then it is very likely that the task will be passed to me. But as result of this long process (task migration between matrix people), we lose some weeks or month to chooce the best task performer. I thought a lot that the hierarchy would be a better solution, because the matrix is impossible for all of 1500 people, and such a mix of matrix+hierarchy produces conflicts and mess. This means that it can make a profit when a worker attached to a project where he can bring good solutions in selected longterm team, comparing to choicing a temporary team from matrix people for this project. I can think of organizing teams in matrix structure, but I strongly agains of schema where individuals are in matrix. Saying next, in development we have a brigades (usually 3 or 4 persons). Each brigade does better something (say foundaton or walls or roof, etc). The brigade leader is responsible for members of these brigade, and the members mostly permanent. If some brigade member is self-motivated and does the job well in team, the brigade could be separated to two brigades in future with this new leader. And the matrix structure for choosing brigades makes it sure that the leader does the job enough good, because he wants be chosen the next time for good contracts. This means that the matrix should not be too complicated, e.g. the number of elements in matrix should not be high and the people involved in matrix should be qualified people. It is better having matrix at the top of the buiseness structure where the quiality of decision is more important (so the leader could be changed or rotated if he produces bad decisions), than at the bottom. Thinking of graph I could say that trees (hierarchy structures) could be subelements of network (matrix layer) and then I’m a manager in this network layer thinking of my construction buiseness. Take in mind that I’m living in Russia where there are no laws, so if I do management bad in construction buiseness, then my role can over. Let’s think of moving my buiseness experience to our development company. If the structure is more complicated (many layers) like we have in developoment company, then let’s devide the process like that:

    1. There are small development teams (from 3 to 10 persons). There is a leader in each team and it is known this team best practices is something (type of projects solved).
    2. There are managers who are resposible in sharing projects between teams, teams cooperation and organization (time-scheduling, reports, etc).
    3. There are matrix people who got paid for calculation efficaciousness of managers and rotating them stronger to crucial projects and weaker to other projects, or by some other criterion, but the criterions of rotation should be well known and should not be “he is my friend” or worse “he gaved me bribe”. It should be just few such a managers who are resposible for rotation, because it is very important for them being hones and enthusiastic people.

    99. The goal of any structure is making it impossible using bad (non-buiseness) criterias of choice like benefits rollback (bribe) or friends (choice based on personal reasons), and this princeple works only if rotation is small enough so everyone knows much about other members of matrix. Thinking of smaller part (teams or brigade), it is the same that everyone in this team knows everything about each other.
    100. From my point of view, the main problem is that the buiseness people usually wants having permanent hierarchy at the top of company, and involve matrix as experiments somewhere at the bottom, making the size of elements in matrix too much (say 20 or even 40 people in matrix segment and many matrix segments). It is better like having 3 top managers as matrix people and 15 teams as matrix segment with permanent personnel of teams.

  15. September 6, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    […] blog has a post on forms of societal organisation, which it breaks into 4 categories – hierarchy, anarchy, rhizome, and matrix. Despite poplar opinion among people interested in community, hierarchy does offer some advantages. […]

  16. October 30, 2011 at 5:06 am

    […] blog has a post on forms of societal organisation, which it breaks into 4 categories – hierarchy, anarchy, rhizome, and matrix. Despite poplar opinion among people interested in community, hierarchy does offer some advantages. […]

  17. Johnk456 said,

    April 27, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Some really quality content on this website , saved to fav. dedbckdacked

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