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Matrix Organization: The Challenge of Team Development

It is well known that a strong cohesive team is an effective and productive team. But how does one convert a gaggle of employees into a successful team? Professionals, scholars, and writers have answered that question time and time again. Strategies including team-building exercises, retreats, luncheons, touchy feely sessions, and so forth have all proved effective in developing a cohesive team over time within a functional organizational structure. However, time to build a cohesive team is not a luxury that exists in a matrix style organization where a group of individuals are put together for what may be a short specific project. This article will focus on techniques that can be utilized to build a successful team in a versatile matrix organization thus mitigating some of the risks associated with continuously jumbling team members from project to project.

A matrix structure within an organization utilizes cross-functional teams comprised of personnel from various disciplines in support of a common project. This differs from the traditional hierarchical (functional) organizational structure by:

  • Blending various skills into a single team under a project manager
  • Teams works together only for the duration of a project
  • Members come and go from the team as needed to support project

The matrix structure is a proven blend of the traditional functional and projectized structures and allows management team to slide personnel around to meet needs on projects as they arise.

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In the above example, an organization is setup with three functional areas: logistics, training, and technical support. Whenever a new project is initiated, a project manager is assigned resources from the appropriate functional area as needed. Project Manager #1 requires support from logistics and technical support where as Project Manager #3 requires support from all three functional areas.

Though a matrix structure can provide a more efficient use of an organization’s resources, it is not without it’s own set of challenges. Project managers competing for the use of the same resource can result in conflict thus negatively impacting project schedules unless a compromise can be obtained with the functional manager. Resource availability can be an issue but one of the most difficult challenges to overcome within a matrix structure is Team Development.

Renowned psychologist Bruce Tuckman stated that the development of a team goes thru four states: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Any time a team is formed they enter a “honeymoon” phase where everyone gets to know each other and appears to be getting along. As team members get to know each other they move into the storming phase where things can get rocky as turf wars and personality conflicts ensue. Productivity can come to a screeching halt due to bickering and complaining and morale will suffer. As the team members begin to understand their roles within the team, and the personalities of their counterparts, they will enter the norming stage. Here the team hierarchy is set and team members adhere to the leader’s authority. At this point productivity will increase and the team will be at the performing stage.

The timeframe for a team to transition thru the four phases varies based on the size of the team and personalities of its members. It may take a few days or even several weeks. Any time a new member of a team is added the team, the phases of team development is restarted. This is where a matrix organization can run into trouble. Since members of a “matrix” team come and go throughout a project, a project team can in essence always be “restarting” back thru Tuckman’s team development cycle and never reach their maximum performance ability.

Let’s say an IT corporation has a project to install new video teleconferencing equipment and training at a client’s headquarters. The project manager will need support from logistics to procure the material, technical support to install the equipment, and training to provide the training. At the start of the project the project manager will only need resources from logistics. Until the material arrives, there is no need to have personnel from technical support and training assigned to the team (their time would be better utilized supporting other requirements until they are needed for the video teleconferencing project).

As the material begins to arrive, the technicians will then be assigned to the project team, thus changing the team dynamic and forcing the team to transition thru the phases of team development. Unless the team can quickly achieve the “performing” phase, there may be conflicts between the logisticians and technicians that can negatively impact the project. The above situation will occur again when it is time for the trainers to join the team.

So how can this risk be mitigated? The below list contains techniques and strategies that will assist matrix organizations with their team building challenges during the execution of a project.

  1. Communication – This is the most important strategy that should be employed. The project manager must ensure that all members of the team, especially newly assigned members, are properly informed of all pertinent project information to include the team goals. There is nothing more frustrating to a newly formed team then to be left in the dark. Clear communication must also exist between team members. The project manager should ensure that the team does not ostracize newly assigned team members.
  2. Chain of Authority – The project manager should ensure that all team members are clear as to the chain of authority. There should be no question as to who is in charge. Though the project manager is the one in charge of the project, there may be instances where lower level team members would report to a more senior member of the team instead of directly to the Project Manager. For example, a project that contains multiple software programmers may have the lower level programmers reporting to a senior programmer that in turn reports to the project manager.
  3. Lanes of responsibility – A project manager may be able to mitigating some of the turf wars that can occur in the storming phase by providing each team member with clear lanes of responsibilities or a project specific job description. The project manager should also explain in detail the importance and impact of each team member’s role on the project.
  4. Training – Nothing can slow down the progress of a team more than an untrained team member. Would a professional sports team perform at an optimal level if an untrained individual was added to the team? Of course not. Yet this seems to be commonplace amongst many organizations. Team members who are not yet ready to perform and contribute to a team should not be added to a project. Adding an untrained individual to the team will cause resentment amongst members and will impact quality and schedule. Instead the individual should be processed thru the organizations training program in order to learn the tools and techniques required to succeed. If the organization does not have a detailed training program for new employees, then it might be time to start one!
  5. Eliminate dead weight – Project managers need to react quickly to an unmotivated team member. These personnel can weigh down the team and their negative comments can spread amongst the team like a cancer, impacting morale and performance. If the individual does not want to be part of the team, then the project manager would be better served getting rid of them. It may be also be a wise decision for the project manager to work with the employee’s functional manager and Human Resources to permanently part ways with the employee. No organization needs an individual who is not a team player and is not willing to support the company’s endeavors.
  6. Strong Project Managers – An organization utilizing a matrix structure should ensure that it employs project and functional managers who are experienced in working in this kind of structure. Project and functional managers should clearly understand how resource allocation requests should be coordinated and processes should be in place for passing employee performance feedback to the functional manager. The project manager should quickly identify the strengths and weaknesses of the project team as new resources are assigned and adapt his/ her management style to provide the most influence. Strategies that work this week may not work next week if there are new faces joining the team. The project manager must be prepared to react.
  7. Team Building Activities – Due to time constraints and deadlines this may be difficult to employ mid-project. However, there are multitudes of team building activities that can be utilized that only require a 10-15 minutes of investment. It is an investment because a team that comes together quickly will become more efficient and the project manager will “earn back” the time invested in conducting the team building activity. Some favorites include:
    • Team introductions (name, role on team, hobbies) each time the team dynamic changes
    • Discuss favorite movie, book, television show, etc.
    • Each team member discuss what they like most about the organization
    • Discuss what each individual accomplished during the weekend
    • Team lunch

There are countless other team building activities ideas that can be researched on the Internet and management books. The purpose of these exercises is to break down the barriers of communication that often occur during the storming phase.

Though a matrix organization can present a challenge for team building, the above techniques will help mitigate some of the risks and allow management to focus on the project execution itself, instead of personnel problems. By investing a few minutes to employ these strategies a project manager can experience a large return on investment (of his time) by having a strong team perform efficiently and capable of creating “miracles” when needed. In the dynamic world of project management, having one less thing to worry about makes for a good day.

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