The Matrix? Do you want to know what it is?

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Another movie quote, from The Matrix (1999).

Matrix management is a common affliction.  It is adopted as a way of managing multiple people across an organisation into different temporary organisations (i.e. projects or programmes) without formally transferring them out of their original organisations.  That’s the simple version.  The more intricate version, often adopted in larger organisations in the hope it creates efficiencies (cost savings), is where people are not only loaned out to projects/programmes, but to multiple such temporary organisations at one time.

I’ve given away my position on this in the first line of the previous paragraph.  It’s not that the idea is utterly terrible – in fact it can be done well, and have some really surprisingly good results – but the execution is usually so dreadful that I use the term “affliction” deliberately.  Let’s look at some of the worst sins.

Matrix Performance Desserts

Within the world of work we all get managed towards better performance, at least in theory.  The fact that some contractors (freelancers for those across the sea) cite annual appraisals as the strongest motivator for going that route – rather than the increased financial rewards – speaks volumes about how well that entire process is handled in many organisations.  Nevertheless, in theory we receive coaching on how to improve our performance from our line manager, who has pastoral care responsibilities for us; and in theory in many organisations they are also supposed to support our career development.

So what if all the work we do as individuals, or the vast majority of it, is done for projects via matrix management?

Time and time again line managers are divorced from the quality of their staff’s work.  Matrices are a very good place for poor performers to hide.  It makes me question the point of having any line management in the traditional sense when people within that line are spending all their productive time working in projects away from the perception of the person.

I didn’t say simply “how bad their staff’s work is”.  The lack of visibility cuts both ways. It’s demoralising to work hard for a project/programme, make a real contribution, and then discover that in your end of year review your performance has been marked as mediocre.

Some organisations have the good sense to put in place a means of recognising and rewarding good performance in a more tactical way.  I have yet to encounter an organisation which has a good way of giving just desserts to non-performers in a similar manner – if there’s anybody out there with suggestions, please pass them on!  Neither of these two are a substitute for the performance review goodies – in typical organisations your individual, performance related pay does not necessarily reflect tactical rewards at all, and permanent pay rises are more a question of the line manager’s perception than the value delivered to the company.

I have an odd habit.  I like to collect ways of saying thank you (in different languages for instance).  Last time I counted, I got to around 50 different languages I could communicate thank you in, including some very peculiar ones.  This – albeit not in different languages – is a habit I strongly commend to anyone who has to deal with Matrix Management as part of their role.  Certainly not every week for every contributor, and there will be times when it’s a lot less often, or only a subset, but cultivate a habit of feeding back about good performance to both the contributor and their line manager as a regular part of what you do as a matrix manager.

When it comes to poor performance, the same principle applies.  You don’t have to write a foul-mouthed rant about someone’s unlikely parentage and personal habits, but you should feedback, again to both the contributor and their line manager, if you can see development areas that the person needs to focus on improving.

A bit of coaching to the contributor is useful here too: encourage them to set aside that feedback, from any such matrix engagements, and use it with their line manager during the review process if such a thing happens.  (And since you’re going to be constructive if you’re giving “please improve” feedback – always – you can encourage them to consider for themselves how they can act on that feedback.).

This approach could be shocking for the line manager, so it’s worth letting them know that you will be doing this.  Make sure that they understand that if you’re going to them for an escalation, or for them to take action, you will explicitly say so to them in your communication.  Otherwise every time you do this you may be getting more and more demoralised resources.

I will be jacking back into the Matrix again soon…

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