Collaborative, cross-functional work has become the norm for high-performing, tech savvy companies. Your career success may very well depend on your ability to develop an effective project governance structure in matrix environments.

What is project governance? It is the way in which a project team makes and carries out decisions each day, assigns responsibilities for deliverables, and manages team objectives.

When a project team is assembled from within a mature, healthy org chart vertical or functional area, project governance is probably already well-established. Team members will gravitate to norms of working that have been applied for months, years, or decades. They will be comfortable with the existing lines of authority. Role definition will require little, if any, clarification. Tuckman’s “forming” stage will be a small bump on the team’s road to success.

On the other hand, your efforts to frame an effective governance structure within a matrix team will be met with obstacles on every hand, including (but not limited to!) the following:

  • Lack of a clear executive stakeholder
  • Absence of (or conflicting) corporate governance practices
  • Overlapping duties between team members
  • Warring factions within the larger organization at the executive level
  • Time zone differences
  • Ambiguous requirements, objectives, and vision

In the face of these significant challenges, here are three proven practices which will help you and your team thrive in matrix environments.

1. Become a master of “internal” customer service.

It’s a generally accepted truth that sometimes we’re nicer to strangers than we are to our own family members. In the words of Alex Lickerman, “We have the least tolerance for the negative qualities of those with whom we spend the most time.” I believe this idea equally applies to the workplace. As professionals, we rightly place heavy emphasis on pleasing our external customers, but then treat our coworkers poorly without a second thought.

In the workplace, how long does it take you to respond to a phone call or email? How responsive are you when a front-line staff member asks for your help versus someone from the C-Suite? When you interact in 1:1 or group settings, are you enthusiastic and positive? Do you gossip? Do you speak negatively about other employees?

As a leader in a matrix environment, you’ll have to lead by example. If you have an internal customer service deficit, it won’t be easy to fix overnight. Start each day by building your personal brand through excellent internal customer service. Take a time management course so that you can interact and serve more people at work. Branding is built through hundreds of small perceptions and interactions; ideally you’ll have a bevy of positive branding moments in your personal bank account before you step into your first kickoff meeting. Holding team members accountable becomes much more feasible when you yourself are acting like the employee you expect them to be.

2. Establish a decision-making process as early as possible in the project lifecycle.

In both the human and animal world, scientists have proven and widely discussed the importance of the first few moments after birth. This crucial time is termed “imprinting”. Imprinting refers to the process by which an offspring inherits parental characteristics through observation. This early phase in life plays a crucial role in cognition and behavioral development.

Similarly, your behavior during the first few moments of project “life” will largely dictate how your matrix team will make decisions from initiation to closure. If you leave this up to chance, you will undoubtedly be unsatisfied with the results. Stay ahead of the game by bringing in a sample decision-making process into your kickoff. Refine and finalize it early in the project lifecycle. A good starting point is creating a RACI chart; however, I’ve found that exploring the “grey” areas of decision-making go beyond any ready-made template.

If you’ve identified two executives with different viewpoints on the project vision, meet with them as soon as possible to discuss how decisions will be resolved when two opposing opinions can’t be resolved. Communicate this process to your project team. Describe to team members how strategic questions will be handled in the case of a stalemate. Run through some theoretical decisions with your team ahead of time on controversial issues to gather some baseline data on how your team will behave. And don’t forget to discuss granular decisions as much as strategic ones. Emphasize the principle of “Disagree and Commit”.

Revisit your decision-making process frequently with your team and make changes as needed. The most brilliant matrix team will be unable to reach its true potential in the absence of an agreed-upon decision-making framework.

3. Advocate for an agile approach.

An organization with low agile maturity will struggle in a matrix environment. Executives will want 100% agreement on requirements and outcomes before the “go to market” launch. Team members will hesitate to brainstorm unconventional ideas due to fear of failure.

Jeff Bezos recently shared that he believes if you’re making decisions with 90% of the needed information gathered, you’re moving too slow. Instead, he argues that decisions should be made more at the 70% level, which allows for more adjustment after the initial customer response. (Amazon delivers new code to customers about every 11 seconds). Whatever the ratio, moving efficiently to deliver incremental value is critical for today’s business teams, matrix or not. And in a matrix team, that can be an exceptionally difficult goal.

To combat these challenges, you will need to be a change agent for agile thinking, and that support for a cultural shift must come from the top. Spend time with your executives extolling the virtues of “failing fast”. Aggressively push back on the notion that every detail needs to be completely set before touching base with your target customer.

Agile teams often follow set-based design principles. Under this philosophy, team members pursue multiple design options at the start of a project, whittling down the solutions little by little until the best solution is determined. This incremental approach avoids the pitfalls of investing too much into a single design that is too costly to modify at the end of a project lifecycle.

Conclusion

While these three tips are not intended to be an exhaustive list, I have seen them play a crucial role in matrix team success. By being a master of internal customer service, establishing a decision-making framework early on in your project, and advocating for agile best practices, you will be well on your way to executing effectively with matrix teams.

 

Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Justin Scoville

Justin Scoville

Contributing Author

Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.

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