Servant Leadership

This is a topic I stumbled across long after I’d established what my values and intentions were in leadership, and I found myself feeling immediately at home with the concept.  Over time, I’ve found this term creeping into sufficiently common use that I can offer it as a description of what kind of leader I choose to, and aspire to be, and I find it is sometimes understood – and often looked up, and then understood.

It’s possible that it’s obvious from my other posts that this is how I prefer to be and act, but it’s also possible that this is a new term to someone reading this blog.

Before I provide a link or two to learned articles on the subject, I’m going to explain what it means for me.

I value myself at least partly based on what I can do for other people.  It makes me happy to help others, and it makes me happy to see others do well.  This doesn’t mean I lack the ability or desire to be competitive – play me at board games and you’ll see some competitiveness – but it does mean that I get a kick out of seeing my team do well, whoever I perceive my team to be.  That sometimes – often, hopefully – includes the leadership of that team above me on an engagement.  I call this heart.

It doesn’t mean that I’m a soft touch.  I want the team to do well; if that means that the best thing for the bulk of the team is that someone within the team leaves, that is what I will attempt to achieve.  I usually try to find a way to turn that person around, repurpose them, or otherwise get a result which is good for them as well, but in the final analysis, I can fire people, and I have.  It’s the hardest thing to do, but leadership isn’t about doing only the easy things.  I call this character.  This is also what I would rely on if someone in my team acted out a prejudiced *-ist attack on anyone to my knowledge.  A team needs a conscience, with sufficient teeth to matter.

Sometimes I have to protect my team.  A leader should shower the praise on their team that he receives from outside, but criticism should stop with the leader.  This does not mean that the team members are immune from criticism, or feedback, but it means that the leader should be the one to pass on that message, in the way which will give most benefit to the individual, and which will cause least avoidable damage; and the leader should be shielding his team from direct attack from outside.  I call this courage.  I’d like a better name for it, but when I want to mentally tick off the list, that’ll do.

I want my team to do well, so when I’m leading a team, I want to find out what things are getting in the way of them doing well, and get them out of the way.  Enabling people at a basic level is a key attribute of any manager: giving people the tools they need to get on with the job, always remembering that tools can be physical, software, intellectual and emotional.  Helping a socially awkward computer programmer (stereotype warning!) find some emotional intelligence and insight into the people around them can improve not just their productivity (as much as getting them a faster computer for compiling code), but it can improve far more that can’t be measured with numbers. Coaching and cajoling people, offering feedback and providing opportunities to learn and grow: these are the ways a leader can transform the effectiveness of their team. What’s getting in their way might be their ability to make decisions within the scope of their job.  Like many other things, making the right decision gets easier with practice and examples.  Empowering people isn’t about giving all of them unlimited sign off authority instantly, but empowering them to make the decisions they need to for a productive and happy working life – *and* – is a great way to get engaged and committed, enthusiastic contributors.  This can take the form of permitting them to flex their start times to something which works better for them.  It can be permitting them to choose to work remotely.  It can be keeping the organisation at arms length while a self-forming Agile team goes through the stages before “performing”.  All of this is still enabling to me, although somewhere in the middle for some people that switches to empowering.  I just view the whole thing as “removing barriers that stop people doing their best”.

The last attribute is foresight.  Some people find this easy, but I tend to the view that the ones who are superb at this don’t do a lot of the other things you need to do.  Nevertheless it is a necessary task.  All the enablement you can offer is not going to bring about the changes you need to deliver unless the direction is clear, and that’s especially hard to find in operational teams; when you’re leading change it’s usually a bit easier.  You can do this poorly and the change can still be delivered, but when you do it well you supercharge the team’s ability to deliver.  The larger the change, the bigger the focus on this attribute.  If you have this, but can’t communicate it, you’re going to at least make some good decisions.  If you have this and can communicate it, you can provide people with a vision of the future that can invigorate and even inspire them.

It’s a tall order, and it needs to be worked on every day.





Flushing the Matrix

Finishing off the exploitation of this particular line of thought – and the film reference that goes with it (sorry) with some of the slurry at the end.

Bad things come to those who wait.

The worst challenges of Matrix Management are logical progressions of the concept, and probably inadvertent, but they are common enough to be something to watch out for.


In the kind of change Wolf Bear are involved with, the primary activity of most of the individual contributors on a given project or programme is one requiring focus, attention, and thought.  It might be cabling a server rack well, or it might be writing code, or identifying what felt wrong about a particular functional test, or making a good consistent set of icons for navigation around an app, or a dozen other things that require attention.

Matrix management is sometimes used to slice people’s time too thinly to properly concentrate on what they are delivering.

The focus required can take quite a lot of time to muster, to reach full effect. This is often referred to as “getting in the zone”.  For a lot of coders (for example) it’s a necessity to have a long run up at solving particularly challenging problems, and that doesn’t make them a bad coder – often quite the opposite.  Understanding and getting into the context of a particular project or activity isn’t something that just happens, at least for most people.  Context shifting comes at an intellectual, energetic, and motivational cost, and it harms the concentration and reduces output.

With matrix management, some organisations think they can spread people out ever more thinly, and receive the same results.  A cariacature of a project manager often repeated is: “A project manager is someone who thinks that if producing a baby takes a woman nine months, putting 8 extra women on the job should produce the baby in a single month.”  Many organisations behave as if they believe that they can equally split a person across 4, 6, or even (the worst I’ve seen) 16 different projects and still receive the same attention, quality, and output.

I notice that in every large organisation I’ve seen adopt this kind of approach they have been careful to avoid doing it to flagship projects (programmes, etc.).  Any time you see a behaviour consciously avoided for flagship projects, you know that the organisation knows it harms delivery, and they choose that compromise for the less important things either because it’s how it’s always done (intellectual apathy), or because it’s a compromise they are willing to make.

The results at the negative end of the spectrum include some that are pretty obvious – slower completion, lower quality, increased rework – but they also include some less obvious results: the consequences of forcing people to work in a way which they know they are less good at destroys motivation, lines them up for the kind of performance review which drives them to leave (and sometimes leave permanent employment entirely), and even if their performance review doesn’t suffer, the constant drudgery of producing something less good than what you know you could if you were just given the chance is debilitating.  This is the illusion of efficiency – it feels cheaper to split people across projects – over effectiveness.  It is often better to focus on doing a few things well and quickly than doing many things at the same time, but taking longer to finish anything.  There are scholarly articles in the canon of psychology exploding the myth of multitasking on an individual level, but organisations as well only have so much focus too – but that’s for another article.  True efficiency is a result of comparing the total inputs with the total outputs, but the perception of efficiency is not always as well thought out.

In short: careful with focus; it is fragile, and if it’s too dilute, it harms progress dramatically.

Matrix Dumps

There’s a consequence from matrix management on the (leadership of the) team from whom the matrix resource is drawn.  Very few people become leaders of teams because they are thrilled by utilisation spreadsheets.  (I would like to think it is none, but a variation on Rule 34 probably applies).  If you take their team away on a regular basis and largely divorce them from what the team are doing, what do you expect their response will be?

The team leader might stay.  All organisations have a degree of turnover in staff, but the fastest to leave are seldom the ones you want to leave.  A team leader who knows he has little to do with the way his team work may not take the care and attention a motivated one would in recruitment of replacements.  This snowballs rapidly: if people work in a team where they know the manager no longer cares, they also lose their interest.  That fuels a drop in engagement, which in turn often increases staff turnover, and the problem accelerates.

As a change leader, this can rob you of the tools you need to deliver change – effective, engaged contributors.  The short term solution is to bypass the more irritating consequences of matrix management and, especially on large, demanding changes, adopt resources wholesale.  Longer term, the changes needed to resolve this issue are more pervasive, and harder to achieve.


This is the disconnect is what lies at the heart of my problem with matrix management: the disconnect between the host organisation and the change vehicle. It is the underlying cause of most of the problems I’ve laid out here, and it is hard to resolve systemically.  Recognising the organisation’s true priorities and focusing on those is an organisational approach with a lot of merit; but it’s hard to get the different competing areas within a big organisation to be patient while other areas get their changes carried out.

This is mostly a problem with waterfall organisations.  Agile’s resourcing is for another time.


Deeper into the Matrix

light green characters on a black background

Continuing on the theme of Matrix Management … and hoping this sequel doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Developing the Matrix

When your organisation is working hard, and trying to get the most change done there’s a common casualty: Personal development.  Some line managers try to align their resources to the projects which will provide them inherent opportunities to develop, but a lot seem to either lack the time, or are not permitted the chance to flex resources to reflect their hopes, aspirations, and interests.

This isn’t a responsibility you’ll find in any project brief, but remembering that the intent of all projects is either to build, or to protect, the value in the business, and recognising that the combination of motivating and directing your team is not always easy in a matrix environment, it is in your interests and the project/programme’s interest to get involved.  Approach the team members you’ve been assigned and who you can get around to (that’s not going to be everyone in a 200+ person, 2 year, 3 continent programme), but as a minimum those you directly manage within the change organisation, and find out what they want to learn next.  See if you can angle a way for that to be baked into their role on your project.  If they want cross-training into another skill, see if you can facilitate an introduction to someone within the project who can help them out.  This isn’t your main activity; this isn’t the purpose of the project or their engagement with it – but it’s a way of giving them something which in many cases they aren’t getting any other way, and it pays you back greatly.

Considering the time they spend working on your project, you’ll be seeing more of them than their line manager does.  Invest time in them and how you can help them, and you’ll find a team who do give a lot more of their best for you.

Matrix: Because I choose to

Which brings me to the question of motivation.  Matrix management doesn’t inherently provide good motivation to the members of your team to do their best, or even their second-best, for you.  With the combination of the remote performance punishment reward cycle (often annual; as discussed above usually by a line manager who knows very little about the project contribution); the lack of personal investment in the outcome of most changes for the individuals in this environment; and particularly if there’s the salami-slicing of splitting people across multiple things at once (more of that anon), the motivation of those who work under a matrix manager can be very thin.

If you need the best out of the people on your change, and that’s the case if it’s demanding for them or you as a change leader, you need to motivate them.  When they are working for your change all day, every day, if you’re not taking care of their motivation, ask yourself: who is?  Self starters are great, but not everyone is one, and if your team is going to produce something excellent, you need the best out of a lot of them, not just a few.

For a large proportion of their working day, those individual project contributors, or for larger projects or programmes, even those managers, are going to be your vehicle for carrying out your job, so spend some of your focus on them.  One of the best ways is to engineer opportunities for some personal development for them. Another, simple one, is feedback – again, already discussed.  Offering them some flexibility that they don’t otherwise have – like a later start in the morning, provided that doesn’t harm the needs of the team and the delivery – it’s often surprising what will make a difference.  Remembering always that for a lot of people: motivation isn’t money.

If they are getting all they need from their existing management, you’re not trying to take over, so leave well enough alone.  If they are the kind of self starter who doesn’t need any help like that, again, leave them in peace.  For the others, remember that while they are working on your change, they are your team.