Too often, especially in international matrix environments, a key contributing factor to poor project performance is a misalignment between what the project has to achieve, and the collective mindset of the team who are working to achieve the project goals. This article will look at the importance of going beyond the standard project charter and provide ideas on how to really set a project team up for success. We will consider culture, operating principles and the importance of creating alignment between the stated objectives of the project and the way the team delivers on the objectives.
The problems that come with a matrix-structured organisation are well documented; ambiguity, silo’s, poor communication, cross-functional competitive behaviour and the list goes on. There is hardly a matrix organisation in the world today that isn’t dealing with these issues, and so it’s probably little wonder that when a project team is formed, despite the best intentions of the project leadership, these problems start to hinder the running of the team and in turn impact negatively on project performance. Sitting alongside these more widely understood issues is another that both feeds on these issues and magnifies them; the level of alignment between knowing what the project has to achieve, and how the project team needs to perform in getting there.
The good news is that this gap can be bridged if you clearly understand these three factors:
1. The objective and outcomes of the project.
2. What skills and experience are required to achieve the project outcomes?
3. How does this team need to function to achieve the project outcomes?
Simple right? The first point is straightforward; you won’t be commencing the project without knowing this. The second point is also relatively simple; you work with human resources to identify the right skills and experience, and in some cases seek to match personalities and values. It’s usually at this point that a project team charter is created that summarises things like who is responsible for what, the skills that exist in the team, and how often the team should meet and why.
At this point of team creation the team is still focused to a large extent on ‘what’ we need to be doing to achieve the project outcomes, and in a small project team, in a domestic setting where the team is co-located, or spread around a single country, this may be all you need to get by.
The reality is that in a complex setting, such as a matrix organisation that relies strongly on cross-functional and intercultural collaboration, the first two points are not enough and it is a failure to focus on the third point that can bring a project to its knees.
How your team needs to function requires a clear direction in the same way that ‘what’ you are doing needs to be aligned to a clear objective. For example; we know that the objectives and outcomes of the project provide a clear direction for what processes, technology, skills and experience you require to complete the job. But what, or rather, who, sets the direction for how the team needs to function in achieving the objectives?
The answer is simpler than you think and requires two steps:
1. Ensure that the project leadership group are aligned around what key behaviours and ways of thinking will set the project up for success, and
2. Go beyond the standard project team charter and engage the project team in creating the ways of working that will reflect the alignment, behaviours and ways of thinking established by the leadership group.
Why is this important? If we strip it right back, there are two things to keep top of mind. Firstly the obvious, people follow leaders. If the leadership of the project are not leading by example and demonstrating a collaborative mindset, then the people in their respective functions or teams will follow their lead (eg; silo’s). Secondly, when we consider this statement in the context of a matrix, which brings with it it’s own challenges, then it becomes more interesting. Take the example of time and resources. In a project matrix structure there are always incredible demands for both of these elements, and if the leadership of the project are not agreed on how they should be managed constructively then the reality is that it won’t be managed constructively or consistently throughout the project. Instead we will see the fall back position of silo’s, defensive behaviour and protecting time and resources rather than sharing. It makes sense then that the leadership group have a level of alignment on how they need to work and in turn, what behaviours and thinking they should be reinforcing on a daily basis in the project.
To create this alignment requires the leadership group to come together and ask a simple question:
“what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
A simple question, but one that starts a different conversation from the outset that filters down through the project.
When working with project teams who are stalling, my opening question is designed to gauge the level of alignment that exists in the leadership group, firstly about the level of shared understanding of the project objective and secondly about the behaviours and thinking required to achieve the project outcome. In most cases there is a mixed response to both questions. One recent case involved the leadership team of a major construction project that, amongst many issues, was dealing with a high rate of workplace injuries, one of which had led to a death. In this case they were clear and unambiguous when stating the objectives of the project. On the other hand, their response to my question about behaviors and ways of thinking was diverse; out of the six leaders there were five different responses ranging from “we need to achieve zero harm no matter what” through to “we just need to get the job done no matter what”! This diversity of views was directly reflected in how the different collaborators in the project went about their work with most accidents coming from the “just get it done” influence; and little to no sharing of best practices across the site despite the project charter dictating what meetings and communication points would exist across the site.
A second and more common example involves projects that have team members from more than one country involved. Given the complexities of different languages and cultural frames of reference regarding how work is to be achieved, it is easy to see how this can increase the levels of defensive behaviours in the team if there is no effort made to address the issue of behaviours and mindset in the team at the level of leadership.
This issue was highlighted in a recent intervention; the project involved three countries and each country had very negative views of the others, with feedback which included the other countries not sharing proactively or at all, no respect for time zones for meetings, people not returning emails or phone calls and many more comments similar to this. My involvement came when the relationships and tensions in the project were at breaking point and impacting negatively on performance. In this situation when I met with the leadership group, which had representatives from each country, we quickly established that when completing the project team charter most effort was placed on being clear about expected milestones and outputs, and ensuring that everyone was clear on the contributions expected of each team and country. The focus was on “what” and not “how”. Missing from the initial teaming process was the question, “what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
The leadership group worked on this question and realised that they had taken for granted the idea of collaboration and assumed the team would just work with the additional complexities of culture and collaboration across borders. Some of the leadership group also added that they hadn’t even considered this level of complexity. By not being aware of the constructive ways of working that would set the project up for success, the leadership group were reinforcing a non-collaborative mindset on a daily basis without even realizing it.
Taking care of this first step is as simple as bringing the project leadership together and spending an hour or two exploring the question of what behaviours and mindset are required for the project to be successful, considering factors such as culture, communication, collaboration and conflict resolution, remembering to start the conversation by ensuring everyone is clearly aligned on the project objectives.
Align the Project Team
The second step in building a successful project team for matrix environments is engaging the rest of the project team on the output of what the leadership group agreed in the above step. If there is a project team charter workshop or a kick off meeting taking place that involves the wider project team, this is the ideal place to create this alignment. This process is about presenting the key behaviours and mindset that the leadership group identified and asking the wider team to define what this means in ‘real world’ terms. Below is an extract from a recent project team charter that had a session focusing on behaviours and mindset:
The best thing about this step is that the team is not only creating it’s own rules for engagement, there is also a level of alignment between leadership and the team that is often missing, especially in large multi-country projects.
A matrix environment is one that easily makes room for complacency and ambiguity, and so there is one final step; and that is to revisit the team charter for relevance, and to ask the question on a regular basis around whether the project team is keeping to it’s agreed operating principles.
A successful team in any setting is one that communicates, collaborates and builds a level of engagement that leads to trust. In a matrix or international setting this becomes even more critical. A project team is never a long-term proposition; it needs to come together, get on task quickly and efficiently, deliver and then disband. The reality is that if we dissect a traditional teaming process, in most cases the focus will be mostly on ‘what’ we need to do, and perhaps ’who’ we are (personality, skills and experience) as a team member. Rarely do we look at how we should deploy our skills for optimum impact, how we can share and optimise our experiences, or how we need to modify or adapt our behaviours to quickly and effectively get on task with each other.
The project team charter process is just the vehicle to use for having one of the first and most critical conversations that will impact how your project will unfold:
“what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
First published on Gower’s GpmFirst, July 2015 at:
One of the greatest challenges facing leaders in matrix and global working environments is ambiguity. Unclear expectations, competing demands and lack of role clarity; these are all factors that contribute to a challenging and complex working environment. Underpinning this is the extent to which you can accept that this is ok, and believe it is a place in which you can both function well on a daily basis and succeed over a longer period of time. If you require a clear structure with congruency between what really happens as opposed to what is said will happen, then a matrix is not going to give you this.
There’s nothing wrong with not being able to adapt to the ambiguities of a matrix structure, because your need for structure is hardwired, as it is with all of us. It just means that each day there is a disconnect between your behaviours and how you feel about what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Those who are unable to deal with the complexities of dual reporting and the cross-functional tug of war that comes with such an environment need to own up to this and do something about it.
And the good news is that there are things you can do to overcome the ambiguities of a matrix and achieve success.
Successful leaders can accept ambiguity. It doesn’t mean that they like it, but they are able to see it for what it is and put measures in place to compensate for the lack of structure and clarity that they desire. I’ve spoken previously about some of those measures in the article Tips for Succeeding as a Matrix Leader. They included:
There is one other successful matrix leaders do very well. They favour collaboration over competitiveness.
In an ambiguous working environment the path to success, either individually or for your team, isn’t always clear, yet, in such an environment our natural instinct is to either fight or flee; and if we choose to stay and fight we are in a competitive mindset that naturally creates blind spots and works against our ability to think and act strategically. In a matrix or global working environment a strategic mindset is a must; and is a natural companion to a collaborative way of working. The best way to succeed in complex environments is to look for ways to achieve success by leveraging the expertise that exists in other parts of the business. In a small to medium sized business the ability to be the ‘jack of all trades’ may be important; but in a large organisation it is a blocker of success; in fact this mindset reinforces silo’s and a competitive mindset (“why share or collaborate when we can try and do it all ourselves?”). In a complex organisation, knowing who the masters of their trades are, and how to leverage that expertise is what gets you ahead. Instead of imagining the boundary that separates your team or function from the next as being solid; see it as soft or somewhat porous and allowing of energy, creativity and communication to flow more freely.
You may not be able to remove ambiguity from your world, but you can find ways to make your peace with it and set yourself and your teams up for success. The first step is to be honest with yourself around the extent to which you can easily work in such an environment, and then determine the actions that will help remove the fog of ambiguity and allow you to succeed.
One of the single biggest contributors to successful matrix leadership is conduit management. Yet, despite the positive impact of conduit management, it tends only to be a way of working that is taken for granted by those for whom it comes naturally. For most matrix leaders, conduit management tends to be an afterthought or not thought of at all!
So what is conduit management? In simple terms, it is being able to anticipate, collate and decode information from many sources (eg; their managers, key stakeholders etc…) and then pass a single message on to their team that is balanced, accurate, authentic and politically sensitive.
To understand the role of conduit management, let's consider a situation I worked through recently with a manufacturing client. The national head of manufacturing was preparing for an ERP roll out across four large manufacturing sites. The single biggest issue he faced was the conflicting opinions held by his two managers:
This is a big example; yet it is the sort of scenario we see played out on many levels. The fact remained though, that irrespective of whether the two managers could find common ground, the roll out would still occur. The other more difficult reality was that if his direct reports or the wider manufacturing workforce caught on that there was a difference of opinion at senior levels of the organisation, this could add greater complexity to an already arduous roll out that had involved internal politics and a long tiresome process of ERP selection.
If we look at this type of situation through a conduit management lens, what sort of actions can help to decongest the pipeline and assist the conduit manager with providing a single and focussed message to the workforce?
The first step is to seek alignment, or a common position between your managers. Ideally this is done face to face, or at worst, in a single conversation over the phone or through videoconference. It allows for a dialogue on the topic and for your managers to hear your perspective. Don’t be surprised if you find that there has been little to no dialogue between your managers on the topic!
If your managers can’t find common ground, then seek to establish an agreement for moving forward. This is a simple facilitated meeting that results in a contract between you and your managers, that explicitly states the following:
If you can achieve either of the above outcomes, you’ve gone a long way towards setting up an easier to manage conduit between those above you, and the people who look to you for key messages. Importantly, it also reduces the impact and instances of gossip that tend to blossom in the chasm of differing opinions.
Conduit management is also about how you lead in a matrix on a daily basis. Naturally it comes to the foreground in times of change, however effective conduit management can contribute to the development of your leadership tool kit in other ways:
It helps develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. You will receive many pieces of information from those above and around you – deciding what is important to pass on, and who should receive it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it seems easier to push it to one side and hope that it takes care of itself! However good conduit management is about learning how to synthesise information that may contain different opinions (sometimes from the same person!) and interpret what’s really being said when making a decision on what you will pass on, and how.
It creates opportunities for communication and strengthens relationships. The beating heart of a matrix organisation is relationships. Relationships with your team are equally as important as those in your network and those with your own manager/s. An effective conduit manager is on the front foot with relationships, because they understand that there is greater clarity through dialogue and free-flowing communication.
By leveraging your network, you can anticipate where conflicting messages come from and make your own evaluation on whether they are grounded in reality or just gossip. This will inform the way you manage the expectations of your team; the ability to nip something in the bud by debunking an issue as idle gossip can save a lot of time down the track when the gossip may take on a life of its own!
Maintaining regular one on one’s with each of your up line managers (and as often as practical - three way conversations), will also ensure you are in the best position to anticipate, interpret and explore issues and topics with your managers in a controlled and proactive way, rather than finding yourself in the same situation as the manufacturing head in the above example; trapped and reacting.
Finally, conduit management is an understated and often unknown, leadership essential in complex organisations. In some respects it is the bundling of a range of leadership skills and attributes that we already know, and applying them in a specific context. Conduit management can be learned, and the ability to apply conduit management principles is often the difference between surviving and succeeding as matrix leader.
Leading and managing in complex organisations, such a matrix or a large global organisation, can be frustrating at the best of times. There’s no need to sugarcoat the fact that such environments aren’t always the easiest in which to succeed. Dual reporting lines that have competing interests, dealing with silo’s and wading through politics that would sometimes make the most hardened politician break down, are all points of frustration for matrix and global leaders. All of this can lead to the feeling that you are part of a large cumbersome machine.
The good news is that there are those who do succeed, and sometimes thrive, in such settings. Have they worked out a formula for success? Or do they simply have the right personality to succeed in the midst of complexity.
After having coached, consulted to and worked with mid-level leaders through to C-level executives, across five continents over the last 14 years, my view is that it takes a good dose of both elements.
On the one hand, I’ve experienced those leaders who have found a formula for achieving their tasks in face of competing priorities and politics. The bad news for them is that they don’t have the resilience or political nous required to enjoy and optimise their role. On the flip side I’ve worked with others who don’t necessarily have a formula or process for task success, rather they have great political nous and a knack for connecting and creating networks. The good news for these leaders is that they create a strong sense of connection and support for them as a person, though their performance in the role suffers simply because they haven’t been able to fully achieve what the role demanded.
So what’s the balance? When I reflect on these experiences, there doesn’t seem to be a balance as such; and when I work with leaders and groups in this environment the focus often drifts towards searching for a balance. Rather, there are a handful of key activities that if adopted, create a platform upon which the leader is able to work in a more balanced way. I’ve captured these key activities below:
They Adapt to the Structure
Traditional hierarchical structure thinking and behaviours (command and control) just don’t work in a matrix, and these people get this. They may not fully grasp the structure that surrounds them, especially if they are new to the business. However they still find a way of building an informal network that will support them and their team in achieving their goals until they get their head around the formal structure.
They Create a Support Network
Leading on from the previous point, those who achieve success don’t do it alone! They identify very early the value of an informal network of internal coaches, mentors and friends from different parts of the organisation. It’s not unusual for these people to be recognized when they walk through the shop floor or when they head to the finance department. Their relationships are reciprocal and based on more than just, ‘can you tell me’. You may think that it looks like a benign coffee that the ‘connected leader’ is taking with that guy who works in the accounts payable department; but you can be assured that she now knows more about what it takes to get one of her suppliers invoices paid quickly, as well as having a colleague who is more than just another stranger in the elevator each morning.
They Ask Questions and Seek to Understand (Not to be understood)
These people remove as much ambiguity as they can by seeking to understand why things are the way they are, and aim to remove the shroud of mystery. They know that the first step towards success is not to try and force your way of thinking on to others, rather, they listen, and seek to create a shared solution. Chances are that if you listen well, you’ll be asked to share your thoughts in return. Role model the type of interaction you would like to receive. A great bi-product of this is that a strong rapport is built that reduces the impact or presence of silo’s.
They Don’t Assume that Their Dual Reporting Lines are Aligned
If you have two or more upward reporting lines, don’t be afraid to organise a regular catch up on the topic of alignment. They make the issue of alignment explicit and get the objectives of each reporting line on the table. Every time I’ve facilitated this occurrence, either for myself or others, it is an eye-opener! Importantly though, a 30 minute conversation on the topic of alignment can prevent the many hours of frustration that comes with trying to balance competing interests. Simply put; you are one person. Where and how you invest your energy is critical and if those above you aren’t aligned in what they want from you, then it makes sense that your performance will be diluted accordingly.
They Don’t Become a Politician…But they are Aware of the Politics
By taking care of the above point, you can reduce the impact of politics; however the larger and more complex the organisation, the more prevalent the politics. Those who have genuine success in complex environments don’t necessarily buy into the politics. That’s not to say they will completely avoid getting stuck in a political game every now and then, the reality is that this is likely to occur from time to time. But they are able to see the politics for what it is, and ‘work the sideline’. This means that they are almost like the political journalist who can see what’s happening, try to make sense of why it’s happening and is able to report on it from the sideline. In an organisational context you can also work the sideline. Observe the politicking; remembering you don’t have to choose sides. If you observe closely what is being played out you can make a more informed decision around how you choose to connect with those stuck in the games rather than feel as though you are being helplessly sucked into the political vortex!
There’s one other thing about these people; and that’s their level of resilience. I’ve discussed thispreviously, and can’t highlight enough the importance of being flexible in your approach whilst at the same time being continually mindful of your situation and being prepared to adapt at short notice.
Leading and managing in a complex environment takes some skill, and discipline. But it doesn’t need to be made more difficult than it possibly already is. Take some time out to think about the ways that you can adopt any of these points, or refine them if you already do them.