Amy Kates and Greg Kesler
MWorld, 2011

For years, leaders have tried to create organizations where complexity and tension are minimized. The matrix, when used, is considered a necessary evil. But this may not be the right approach in our new era of global competition. Does your company have more than one product line? Do you sell into complex markets? Do you manage people in multiple geographies? If so, you are likely to have a complex strategy with a fairly complicated organization.

The new competency for business leaders – and the human resource professionals who support them in designing, developing, and staffing their organizations – is to understand and harness the inherent tensions in these complex organizations. We find that the fear of conflict and tension comes from two sources. First, managers are afraid to engage in issues that can’t be resolved because there is no strategic clarity. Second, it is natural to try to steer clear of disagreements that might damage personal and working relationships. As a result, many managers avoid tough issues, deal with them behind closed doors, escalate too often, or, worst of all, compromise and sub-optimize decisions and outcomes.

The unfortunate reality is that complex strategies are built on competing objectives, and tension can’t be avoided. For example:

  • Geographically based managers keep healthy pressure on their peers in global product units to pay attention to local customer needs and to be more responsive with quicker solutions
  • Global product leaders focus on preserving the value of a brand worldwide by driving common positioning, messaging, and strict brand standards and pricing
  • Staff functions (e.g., HR, IT, engineering) make certain that global technical skill sets meet enterprise standards and that the business units are investing in talent development
  • New business development teams (for innovation) and emerging-market leaders (e.g. China) compete for budget with developed market leaders to make certain that future growth platforms get adequate attention and funding


The goal should be to promote creativity by surfacing these competing points of view and then making trade-off decisions based on a clear framework. Through our research and work with clients executing multi-dimensional strategies around the world, we have identified a range of practices that are fundamental for introducing and managing conflict effectively. Four are worth highlighting:

  1. Senior management courage to articulate the strategic trade-offs
  2. No solid and dotted line discussions
  3. Hire people who are comfortable with conflict
  4. Investment in the HR systems that support the matrix

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