Making Matrix Management work for your team

Matrix Management

Matrix Management is a term that refers to employees being managed under multiple reporting lines within an organisation. Often Matrix Management is used to create project teams to carry out unique, temporary pieces of work within an organisation. Each of the project team members reports to a Project Manager for the purposes of the project, but has a different individual line manager.

This structure allows organisations to share skills across departmental boundaries, rather than needing to change people’s line manager every time they work on a project.

Matrix Management diagram
An example reporting structure for 3 projects

What Matrix Management means for a leader

Matrix Management can be frustrating for a leader because they temporarily “lose” a team member to a project. Often in this structure, the team member may work part-time on a project and part-time doing their normal day job. This requires a level of oversight and resource sharing that needs to be effectively managed.

Matrix Management does allow your team members to experience different projects in addition to their normal job. This can be important for providing them with variety and building new skills. It can be motivating and exciting for a team member to be chosen to work on a new project.

How to make Matrix Management work for your team

There is no doubt that Matrix Management can introduce a challenging dynamic into your team. Previously your employee had only one leader, but now they report to two. This can be challenging if it isn’t handled correctly.

There are a number of challenges introduced by Matrix Management, including:

  • Multiple leaders can be difficult to manage. The Project Manager needs Sonia to finish an important task. So does her Line Manager. Which does she do? Often the result is both, and Sonia starts to feel stressed at working long hours.
  • It’s hard to see what the team member is doing. Occasionally, you’ll get a situation where a team member plays one role off against the other: “I’m working on the project today”. For some employees, this is used as an excuse to avoid work and it’s unclear to the leaders what they are *meant* to be doing.
  • Pretending you can do it all. One trap of matrix management is that leaders assume that the team member can do the day job and the project, with no loss of performance. This is often a flawed assumption.

Make Matrix Management work by agreeing the division of labour

When a new project introduces this arrangement for one of your team members, it’s important to establish the rules early. Set clear expectations as to how much time the team member should spend on the project and how much time should be spent working within your team.

This is best agreed at the start of the project with the Project Manager and your team member. This way, everybody is clear as to the work allocation. If the time division is not being adhered to, you have grounds to discuss this based on your earlier agreement. Failing to agree the specifics early on can result in assumptions being made which cause conflict.

“I assumed Shirley was fully available to work on the project.”

Make Matrix Management work by reallocating tasks

No matter what your team member may tell you, never assume that they can handle their day job and a project at the same time, without loss of productivity. A project takes time away from a team member’s day job and this needs to be catered for.

There are a few options you can use to make this work.

  1. Bring in additional help to do the day job. This might be a temp or a part-timer, or even a secondment from another area of your business.
  2. Accept that less work is going to be done. If you can accept that your team will simply reduce their output while the project runs, then this may be an adequate “do nothing” approach.
  3. Permanently adjust your team structure to cater for projects. A more permanent change might be to build a “utility” role into your team that is designed to work part-time on projects. This role focuses on process improvement or other tasks. As such, the fluid nature of the position is built directly into the role.

Make Matrix Management work by keeping in close contact with the Project Manager

Even though your team member no longer works full-time for you, you still need to be able to manage them effectively. The only way you can do this is to remain in contact with the Project Manager or other colleagues involved in the project. Organise to catch up with them for coffee once in a while.

This allows you to gain feedback about your team member’s performance. It also enables you to monitor whether your team member is allocating the right amount of time to both the project and their normal duties.

I’ve seen a number of leaders over the years caught in the trap where they aren’t aware of what their team member is actually doing. Are they working on the project? Or are they doing their day job? This situation can result in an employee underperforming. People fail to notice because they think they are at their “other job”.

Come performance review time, you’ll be thankful that you have some feedback from the project to be able to give your team member. Otherwise you won’t know how they’ve been performing and you’ll have very little to say.

Matrix Management can be a challenging structure to work with, but it does provide a number of benefits. It lets your team have variety in their work by providing temporary projects, which can be extremely motivating. You may even find that your employee is more motivated in their normal day job. This sometimes happens since they are no longer doing this as their sole focus. Variety does wonders for motivation and keeping team members interested.

Matrix Management can be challenging, but it’s certainly worthwhile. Don’t be afraid of it. Apply the guidelines above to make the effort to make it work for you and your team members.

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