This article argues that an organisation’s inability to successfully dovetail matrix management alongside its vertical reporting structure is a major threats to project success…
In an increasingly complex world business change programmes and projects are also increasingly complex. More often than not, the work of a project crosses functional boundaries within an organisation.
This often leads to confusion within organisations and project teams – or, more accurately, line-managers and their direct reports. This contributes significantly to poor collaboration within projects and the added likelihood of project failure.
Traditionally, organisations are arranged vertically within functions, where line-managers have direct reports to whom they allocate targets and tasks and then manage their people accordingly.
If done well, the targets set will be derivatives of the line-manager‘s targets, which in turn are derived from the organisation’s strategic goals. The problem with this model, though, is that the accountability to which line-managers are held can quickly turn to blame if their functions fail to perform well, especially during tough economic times.
There are two important behavioural consequences arising from this, both of which decrease the likelihood of success in cross-functional projects.
The first is that line-managers take a stronger directive stance with their direct reports who, in a prevailing blame culture, will do exactly what is asked of them by their line-managers. This at best stifles initiative and flair and at worst makes the workplace a thoroughly miserable place to be.
The second threat to successful project delivery is caused because line-managers and direct reports place the non-failure of their function above the success of the cross-functional project. Whenever there is a conflict of interest between the function and the project people will rally behind the permanent structure – the function – and subjugate the temporary structure – the project.
People might argue that they do not behave in this way; line-managers in particular are wont to claim they behave corporately, but the weight of project-failure statistics is a compelling counter-argument.
Organisations implicitly accept that it is far more acceptable for a project to fail than it is for a function to fail, and in any case, managers can always dilute the success criteria for a project to lessen the apparent failure. However, it need not be this way.
If an organisation wants to undertake successful cross-functional projects the solution is to implement effective matrix management. Put simply, matrix management means emphasising the cross-functional structure over the vertical structure. The functions, in addition to their business as usual work, become enablers for business change programmes and projects.
In this model, the team is formed by drawing from all the functions with a contribution to make to the project. The project manager becomes accountable for the success of the project, but because he does not have line-management responsibility for the team members his leadership is derived from the team’s consent, not from his authority over team members.
This alters team behaviour. Team members jointly “own” the project and have a vested interest in its success. They instinctively understand that success will come from collaboration, and so they work in an adult way, seeking agreement and consensus within the team.
In turn, this fosters commitment, enthusiasm and creativity, as each team member feels part of a team, not merely a puppet of the function. For the duration of the project the focus for team members is the project. The success of the project becomes the team members’ success. Work becomes more rewarding and project success becomes more likely.
So where do line-managers fit into this horizontal model? They continue to play a key part in business as usual, and will more than likely be part of the project’s stakeholder liaison plan, to be kept informed and consulted, but in terms of the delivery of business change work they are one step removed. Their role in relation to the project team members from their function is limited to what could loosely be labelled “Pastoral care”:
· Ensure that their direct reports are adequately trained and equipped to do the work expected of them
· Be an escalation point for non-technical problems encountered on the project by the direct report(s)
· Be an escalation point for the project manager if there are issues with the direct report
· Support the direct-report’s development, and career-aspirations
· Oversee staff appraisals, holidays, disciplinary matters etc.
Additionally, in respect of projects, line-managers should represent their function at the project Steering Group. This empowers them to resolve issues the project manager is experiencing when they cannot be resolved at project level, and gives them an insight into how the project fits into the overall company strategy.
Attendance at Steering Group also increases co-operation between line-managers across the functions for the good of the project. Cross-functional tensions don’t arise when a Steering Group is committed to a project because undertaking the project has been a corporate decision. Tensions arise when there is resource contention across projects competing for priority, and this is a matter for a Portfolio Executive or similar forum, it should not be the signal for a bun-fight between function heads.
If matrix management is working properly, this benefits all concerned; the project team is left to concentrate entirely on successful delivery, free from the day-to-day concerns, or interference, of the function from which they have been seconded. Line-managers, then, can concentrate on what should be their core work – ensuring that the function has the right level of staffing, with the relevant competencies to support the organisation’s strategic aims, undertake business as usual within the function and be seconded to the right projects as necessary according to the organisation’s priorities.
Steve Syder is a programme Manager specialising in eCommerce and programme recovery. He is in his 21st year as an interim. To contact him visit www.stevesyder.com
 Project managers can be male or female. I use the male pronoun because I am male.
 In a large and complex project it is likely that the line-managers’ managers will be the ones attending Steering Group. In any event, Steering Group should include senior managers with a full understanding of how the project satisfies corporate strategy.