Building Project Teams that Succeed in the Matrix Organisation

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.     The skills and experience required to achieve the project outcomes.

3.     How the team needs 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 smaller 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 not 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.

Leadership Alignment & Commitment to Clarity 

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 comes with it 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, especially if your people are deployed on more than one project at a time.  And if that is the case, then reality bites at times when things like annual leave or time away for professional development needs to be negotiated with multiple project leaders as well as with the home unit manager.  If the different leaders 

(eg; between each project and the home unit) are not aligned on factors such as priorities, how and when leave should be taken, work/life balance factors for the deployed resource, then there is a heightened risk of:

– employee disengagement
– ambiguity creep
– project creep
– lack of accountability (and everything that comes with that – politics, finger pointing, blame etc)

A Commitment to Clarity
Ultimately we 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.    The easiest thing to implement, which I’ve seen used successfully around the world in many project matrix environments is a Matrix Contract.  The Matrix Contract is simple, exists between the home unit and the project, and is the first step to ensuring there is clarity between the home unit and the project.  It can take many different forms, but the central theme is that the home unit and the project make explicit, and sign/commit to factors such as:

– what competence is being provided
​- length of time on the project
– expectations on when/how often professional development will occur
– the process for approving leave
– the process for ensuring priorities are aligned

I’ve also seen some situations where an additional step is built in and each manager and the deployed resource state what they will each do to ensure that this is a success.  In all, once in place, the conversation to agree these factors only needs to take 30-60 minutes maximum!

Leadership Alignment
The clarity spoken about above often evolves around the core relationship between the home unit and the project.  But there is a deeper level of alignment required for a project to work effectively and 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.  This conversation, and everything you read below can (and often should) include representatives of the home unit, other transversal groups that have an input or influence on the project (eg; finance, HR, IT) as well as the project leadership.

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 behaviours 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.

But what about culture?

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.  

A second and more common example involves projects that have team members from more than one country involved, and 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.  Our involvement came when the relationships and tensions in the project were at breaking point and impacting negatively on performance. In this situation when we 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 ‘how’ question; “how do we need to be behaving and  thinking individually and collectively 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 realising 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:

Collaboration Example:

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.  In a domestic environment where the it is a project/functional matrix  arrangement, this is of equal importance, and my recommendation is that you would have included the home unit and other transversal groups in this process so there is a broader shared agreement on what it means to collaborate.  

A global matrix-project team and their new project charter in Slovakia

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 constructively – especially in a global context.

First published on Gower’s GpmFirst, July 2015 at:
Updated 12/3/17

Ponte Valle Insight: Building Project Teams that Succeed in the Matrix Organisation

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