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Collaborative Leadership: Managing in the Matrix

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Lao Tzu

The most effective leader doesn’t dictate or mandate, they set direction and eliminate roadblocks. The great leader collaborates with his subordinates, peers, and superiors. He asks more questions and gives fewer orders, deadlines, and directives. At the same time, the great leader must know the character of the people. Not just subordinates but also peers and superiors. Leaders lead across hierarchies and must change their style to suit the situation and the needs of the people they are dealing with.

Leadership starts with a vision. A collaborative approach implies that the vision begins as a draft or seed. It is presented and then evolves through dialogue so that it is owned by all stakeholders. While collaboration takes much more time and effort than the alternative, it pays off. A dictated vision is less likely to be attained than one that has resulted from the contributions and approval of the people who will actualize it and live with the results.

We must transform theoretical into practical for it to be of any use. The theory of a collaborative leadership approach has been expressed many times in many contexts. How does it translate into practical action that a Project Manager can apply in the real world?

We will use obtaining estimates and setting targets as an example of the application of a collaborative approach.

Working in The Matrix

Most Project Managers do not have direct authority over the people working on their projects. When working with “matrixed” resources, collaboration is a must. Anyone who has ever tried to force a deadline on a functional manager or a member of a functional group or operational user organization knows this experientially. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from doing it again. Why? Because of fear and the belief that there is no choice.

The big boss says, “I want this by next Tuesday.” The PM knows that to do it by then Task X must be done by this Thursday. Therefore, the PM thinks there is no choice but to mandate the date to the people responsible for Task X. He’s got to meet the big boss’ deadline.

He goes to the functional manager in charge of the group responsible for Task X and says, “You have to complete your task by Thursday in order for me to meet my deadline.”

The functional manager could comply and deliver. Everyone is happy.

What’s the likelihood of that in your situation?

The functional manager who doesn’t know how to or doesn’t like to say no could say he will comply and not deliver. A different functional manager might laugh and walk away.
Do these responses ever happen? Neither of them is particularly healthy.

An alternative scenario is that the functional manager, who is clever enough and kind enough to take your statement as a question (“Can you deliver?”), assesses the task and says that there is no way it can be done in that time frame, because the effort and duration required are too great and/or there is a backlog of work and therefore no resources to put on the task. We could do Task X by a week from next Tuesday.

If lack of resources is the reason for not being able to hit the deadline, a priority change or additional resources could resolve the problem. That would require a decision from on-high.

There is a choice

The Project Manager who thinks there is no choice but to comply with the big boss’ deadline is in trouble; caught between a rock (the functional manager who says ‘no’) and a hard place (the boss’ deadline). The PM who recognizes that there is a choice has some hope.

The choice is to go back to the boss with a logical and fact based argument and say “Can’t do it by then. It can be done by a later date unless you and/or your peers change priorities. If you do change priorities, then you will have to bear the cost of slowing down or interrupting other work. Still want it?”

This is taking a collaborative approach in managing your peers and superiors. As a leader, you have enabled your boss (or client) to make a decision and set a rational deadline. You have protected your team and yourself from a forced march to failure. You have protected your boss from having unmet expectations and making promises to his boss that cannot be fulfilled.

Of course, doing this means that you must overcome your fear of pushing back and your perception that what the boss says is an unconditional command. Take the command as a question, just like the clever and kind functional manager did.

Also, recognize that your boss may be completely irrational and not care about the facts and logic. He may just want what he wants and think that wanting will make it happen. It might, but at what cost in quality, morale, and trade-offs outside of the boss’ limited purview. This kind of boss, you want to fire.

Managing Direct Reports

Now let’s change the scenario, instead of relying on people from other groups, who don’t report to you, the entire deliverable required by the boss can be delivered by your direct reports; people who you can order around and mandate the delivery date.

The collaborative leader will not mandate the deadline. He will say what needs to be done and ask “When can you deliver?” If the answer is not by next Thursday, then he will ask why and how it could be done sooner. In effect, he is managing his direct reports, his subordinates as if they were peers or superiors.

The result would then be the same as with the functional manager, a choice for the boss.

The PM who pushes down demands rather than pushing back with a logical and fact based argument is not a leader; not even a good manager. While he might get his staff to accept irrational deadlines, he really can’t expect them to meet them while meeting the other demands made on them.

There is damage to morale and a loss of respect for the managers who push down irrational demands. Subordinates view them as being fearful, uncaring and weak. They become angry at being forced into a no-win position. Often the best talent leaves.

Collaborative Leadership

In general, telling people what to do and how to do it will result in suboptimal outcomes. The most valuable staff will lose confidence in their boss, suffer from low morale and may leave for greener pastures. People will cut corners and deliver shoddy results. Deadlines will be missed. Stress levels will increase. People will learn to be told what to do rather than to take initiative.

By asking your staff for their input and treating them as peers, you will create a healthier work environment and bring out the best in people. By considering even your boss’ boss as a peer, you will be better able to help her to achieve her objectives.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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