The Matrix Theorem

Nothing much has been happening, since as a rather oblique way to restore karmic balance, The Powers that Be saw it fit to strike me down with a rather unpleasantly powerful case of the runs just after writing my last piece, which kind of took the wind out of my sails for a few days.

So I’ve been left with little energy to spare for anything but passive consumption of mostly ridiculously funny stuff, like all the stupid rumors regarding the Apple event next week and most of the second season of The Big Bang Theory – which was scary in a way because if I put together in a room a few of my old college mates and known acquaintances I’d be hard pressed not to find some similarities…

Anyway, since I promised I’d have a go at it, here’s my take on matrix organizations, in a nutshell:

The thing about matrix organizations is that they don’t really exist. Even their very definition states that the way things are supposed to work is that you assemble a “team” out of folk who are, in fact, part of existing teams (i.e., mapped in the traditional hierarchy/“silo” paradigm), and therefore constantly subject to conflicts of interest.

Having spent most of my time working as an “agent” (complete with suit, of course) herding this particular breed of Matrix cat (for most of the project teams I’ve had to deal with were assembled from people who work in separate departments), I can tell you that from my own experience, it’s one hell of a mess to work in as long as people still have their evaluation goals set by their “normal” line manager and aren’t rewarded (in any way whatsoever) by being flexible enough to work across organizational boundaries.

Sure, some companies will have a (rather vague and ill-defined) “collaboration index” on the quarterly evaluation chart (or try to use 360-degree feedback as part of the evaluation process), but:

  1. In day-to-day issues, the hierarchical model will always win, because those people don’t usually sit near (or interact tightly) with you.
  2. 360-degree feedback can be “gamed” by the simple stratagem of picking standard peers in other parts of the hierarchy rather than the heads of cross-functional (i.e., “matrix” teams)1.

So people have little reason to commit to the team – and regardless of how much (real) leadership you are able to pour into taking that team forward, organizational inertia will always dampen its progress.

Some people think that “empowerment” and big, flashy meetings for both announcing the kick-off and keeping stock of the project are enough to compensate for this – and the typical manager positively loves to have those meetings regularly scheduled, preferably in a way to spoil everyone’s entire afternoon (or morning) every few weeks.

That is where more flexible (bit also not perfect) approaches like Scrumming come from – as a way to counter the effectively poor results of cross-functional teams by both changing the tone of leadership (it becomes more an influential matter) and attempting better, closer involvement between members of the team.

I have a lot of reservations regarding Scrumming, though, most of which stem from there being no direct relationship between goals met by such a team and the traditional organizational rewards (better pay, working conditions, etc.) and that it reminds me entirely too much of a sort of washed-down mashup of all the other processes and methodology fads that have been making the rounds ever since I was an ISO 9000 consultant (yes, shame on me). Not that it doesn’t work, it’s just that (like all methodologies) it will never work for everybody, and I’m seeing some quite oddball uses of it these days2.

Still, my biggest criticism of cross-functional teams (no matter what the methodology) is that they are always bogged down by organizational attrition sooner or later – either you have a very close-knit group of people (ideally around 5) with the influence and the clout to push back on the organization itself at any level required, or the results will be far from stellar.

Trouble is, you can’t always get enough of those people together in the same team, since we’re all “essential” somewhere else – so you end up with a rather sparse matrix, both in content and in overall value.

And you don’t need Algebra to figure out the effectiveness of the result.

Update: Dilbert neatly summarizes hierarchical management’s average handling of this situation, and Wally shares his best practices:

1 I’ve personally found it one of the most unreliable inputs ever used for career advancement, since all you really need to do is leverage the “yes-men” system (i.e., pull a social hack) to make sure the people picked for evaluating you are the ones who’ll give you high marks.

2 Also, it’s rather colorful nomenclature and references to folk tales don’t really inspire me, even if some people on some teams really ought to commit as though their own bacon relied on their efforts…