Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':
The Politics of Tuna Sandwiches and Matrix Organizations

Holiday shopping was a great disappointment to me this year. I tried to find gifts that would truly make a difference in the lives of the people I loved, to no avail. One particularly dear friend is a project manager in a large corporate environment where she has done a tremendous job over the past 5 years sorting out a rat's nest of project disasters that she inherited in succession. Each time she managed to resolve one impossible heap of deliverables she was rewarded with the next steaming pile of challenges. During years of down-sizing, right-sizing, excising and capsizing she prayed for a severance package while watching everyone in her management chain eliminated in whack-a-mole fashion. Infinite cosmic responsibility and unimaginably tiny positional power combined to create a project management job that would grow hair on the fairest chest. More persistent than a tattoo, and with a smile on her face, she maintained her positive attitude throughout and played the system like one humongous video game. She truly deserved a special gift.

After ruling out a fur sink, a mammogram, and a gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater, I hit upon what I thought was the perfect present: a universal remote control. However during my research I discovered that—like many products that don't quite live up to their names—a universal remote control does not, in fact, allow you to control the entire universe. I knew she'd only be disappointed, so I opted for the sweater.

It's no surprise that, being a project manager, my friend had so much responsibility and so little power. Such descriptions of project management are more common than shrubbery. But for some reason this seems to be widely accepted as the nature of the beast. Working in a matrix organization, as many of us do, means that we're responsible for delivering results that require intense cross-functional coordination and the cooperation of individuals who report simultaneously to a half-dozen or more functional managers. Team members rarely report to the project leader, in spite of decades of "lessons learned" indicating that important projects would benefit greatly if they did. The problem isn't necessarily the matrix organization itself, but its implementation. Like so many things in life, it sounds perfectly fine in theory, but in practice working in a matrix organization is less than sub-optimal. Project managers are pitted against functional managers in a struggle over resources in pursuit of what are frequently different priorities.

I've never been a slave to the status quo, so when I am asked how project managers can be effective in a matrix organization, I'm not necessarily quick to answer. To me that question is like inquiring into the political affiliation of a tuna sandwich. In my opinion we should stop hanging out in the current corporate holodeck, conjured generations ago, and start asking the meta-question, "What organizational structures best support project and business success?" It's time to take the red pill, Neo!

Duct Tape for the Org Chart

One of the holiday parties I attended was a gathering of engineering managers. It was supposed to be a festive occasion, but we just couldn't resist talking about code freezes, executive sponsorship and agile product development. As the conversation turned to project management I leaned in with interest, and then recoiled as one of the most knowledgeable and experienced of the group proclaimed, "Project managers are just babysitters! If the organization is run properly we don't need 'em." Bam! That hit me like a chili pepper being shoved up my nostril. A dizzying array of biochemicals overrode my higher brain functions. Eventually rational thought was restored, and I began to wonder if perhaps he had a point. Babysitters . . . well, it sure does feel like that sometimes as we beg, cajole and entreat teammates to play nice and do what they're supposed to do.

If we break a taillight and need to fix it quickly, crafty drivers who wish to avoid a ticket will get themselves a roll of duct tape that will hold until the damaged can be properly repaired. Available in 15 eye-popping colors, you can even do a pretty good job of making your car look like it still has a taillight, ...from a distance. But make no mistake, it still looks wrecked. Now, people get busy, so despite the best of intentions, some cars will still have that (somewhat more shabby looking) duct tape taillight years later. You can't see your taillight when you're driving, so there's no real pressure to get it fixed. What's behind us isn't important. Are project managers are the duct tape holding together the dangling bits of outdated organizational structures?

Ossified Org Charts In A Gumby World

Traditional company structures no longer serve the needs of the rapidly changing world in which businesses operate. Take a look at any typical org chart; it's a great guideline for whom to call if you'll be a tad late to work because you woke up with a nasty volley of flu, but it no longer represents how work gets done. Today, creating successful outcomes on most projects requires not only a combination of cross-functional talents, but also the support of suppliers, contractors and alliance partners—all of whom are critical to success, and none of whom show up at all on those neat and tidy tree diagrams. So project managers are inserted and expected to manage a patchwork quilt of a project team sewn from bits and pieces from across the organization. We succeed not because of, but in spite of, the organizational structures that we navigate within.

Business needs change quickly these days. Whole industries come and go in the time it used to take to get tooling made for an integrated circuit. Next quarter's project might require completely different people, skills, and structure than this quarter's. To be successful in this environment we need to be like Gumby—flexible and adaptable to the ever-evolving business landscape.

Wouldn't it be nice if our organizational structures could shape-shift as quickly as the challenges we face? Not just once every couple of years like most corporate reorg cycles, but truly adapting to the business needs in real-time. Surely it makes sense, and some types of organizations do a bit of this. But why isn't a readily reconfigurable organizational structure more common place? Why aren't nimble companies that can shift to optimally meet customer and business needs more common in our corporate landscape?

My guess is that it's because people love their titles. One VP of HR confided to me that when mergers, acquisitions or reorgs occur, the biggest problem she deals with is people's attachment to their titles. As Patrick Lencioni noted in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (I was surprised to find there were only five!), concerns about status and ego dominate when a shared vision and compelling goals that only a team can achieve are lacking. And lest you think this is just a business issue, pick up Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, Jared Diamond points out that leaders of civilizations facing a looming catastrophe tend to occupy themselves with building bigger and more expensive monuments to themselves rather than tackling the root causes of the decline. (Can you say "global warming?") Apparently those in positions of power, rather than making necessary changes that will benefit the group as a whole, tend to be satisfied with a first class cabin on their sinking ship. Perhaps this is the fate of rigid corporate structures as well. Rather than risking their place in the pecking order by establishing a more flexible structure, most business leaders will likely stave off the inevitable as long as possible, and then fade into oblivion like the Mayan civilization.

I can sense the look of futility and the shrugging shoulders around the world as I write. What can be done? Can we really expect to change the way companies are structured? Perhaps not, but I believe that we can at least create a more effective environment for the people on our teams. Here are my top 3 tips for making the organizational structure irrelevant, at least as it relates to our projects:

  1. Show people that they can make a meaningful difference by contributing to the project. Give people a worthy cause and they will lose interest in status, ego and the hierarchy.

  2. Learn what each person cares about and figure out how that aligns with supporting the project. Sometimes all a person really wants is to be appreciated. Which leads to my next point . . .

  3. Provide recognition and appreciation for contributions to the project that far exceed anything that the functional organization offers. This shouldn't be difficult in most organizations, where sincere appreciation is rather scarce. Today I asked a senior colleague whether he felt appreciated by his company and he said "They don't make it too terribly painful to work here." It should be easy to improve on that! People do what is rewarded, and if working on your project is the most gratifying part of their job it won't matter much what their reporting relationship is to you.

  4. Finally, create your own org chart that makes existing ones irrelevant, at least as far as the project is concerned.

When I lead a project I publish a team org chart that shows the relationship of the various stakeholders to one another, including those external to the organization. It looks something like this.

Team Org Chart

Regardless of the titles involved, this org chart focuses on the roles of the individuals in the project and on their relationship to the project team. The "Project Team Org Chart" has no dotted line reporting relationships or crisscrossing matrices where people report to multiple managers. It aligns goals and roles, at least for the duration of the project. By publishing this chart to the team, their functional managers and beyond, I establish an expectation of leadership, teamwork, and accountability to the project that is stronger than a position in some outdated hierarchical staffing diagram. This chart can also easily serve as a visual Responsibility Allocation Matrix just by adding a few bullets next to each bubble indicating key areas of responsibility for each person.

No one can give you what you deny yourself. Don't be a victim. Do what you need to do to make the project team more important than rigid reporting relationships and company structure. Your project team can be your people's "first team," regardless of the corporate morass that surrounds it.

My friend set the ultimate example. Realizing that it is easier to start a whole new organization from scratch than to change an existing one, she quit and started her own company. I'm helping her create her business plan, and believe me, there won't be any nonsense like permanent titles or silly tree diagrams. It's going to be a living, breathing organism that serves the needs of the business first, and leaves the ego-centric hierarchical structure to the 21st century Mayans.

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