The Madness of Matrix Management

Posted on 10th August, 2009

Matrix management. Mmm.

 

It sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it?

 

That’s because – with very limited exceptions – it is.

 

For the uninitiated, “matrix management” means having more than one boss. Or, if you’re the boss, sharing your team members with other managers.

 

In principle, you can see how this structure is at times both necessary and desirable: Bill needs to report into Ben on this project, and into Hilary on another.

 

That makes sense, and we know that in a world which increasingly values specialist expertise we are likely to get more from our people if we can have diverse managers working with individual employees to assist in nurturing their talent.

 

The problem, as ever, comes with the execution.

 

It’s one thing to have a team member help colleagues with different pieces of work and projects whilst you maintain overall responsibility for that person’s performance and pastoral care. It’s quite another to allow staff to be buffeted between different managers, departments and projects with no sense of overall direction or control.

 

But the latter is most people’s experience of “matrix management”. You don’t need to be a genius to see that this serves no-one well. The employee is too often left flailing around, bewildered and stressed by the requirements of not just one but – by definition – a whole suite of de facto managers, whose inability to back up what they need with any sort of serious leverage is obvious: and deeply frustrating.

 

This does not make for happy, productive workplaces.

 

So why has the government seemingly institutionalised this problem in Whitehall?

 

In an attempt to achieve Tony Blair’s much vaunted “joined-up” government, Sir Gus O’Donnell, the British Cabinet Secretary, and his immediate predecessor have talked a lot about “interchange”. If you want to get on, runs the mantra in the corridors of power, get out. This is a well-intentioned effort to ensure that civil servants, as part of the Professional Skills for Government agenda, get exposed to more than the inevitable silos of their own departments. By taking a year or two in a different department, goes the thinking, we can improve the experience and skill-set of many senior civil servants and so the quality of government as a result.

 

Nice idea, and again – in principle – it makes sense. But instead of “joined-up” government what we actually get is disjointed, incoherent government par excellence. This is because whilst civil servants move from one department to another, they continue to be appraised according to their home department’s performance management system. This presents huge issues for both individual members of staff and their managers.

 

As an individual having “got out” to “get on”, you might well find your performance being measured by someone whose grip of the competencies and behavioural indicators upon which your bonus, next job and possibly the rest of your career depend is at best half-baked. This is before you factor in the wildly differing performance management cultures that exist within the many different departments of the central British government.

 

As a manager, you might well find yourself having to manage a whole host of individuals according to a whole host of different departmental systems and cultural expectations, as well as exposing yourself to the “but you don’t know what it will mean for my career if I don’t get a top box-marking” type complaints and grievances.

 

The problem is particularly acute overseas where increasingly HM Foreign & Commonwealth Office acts as a ‘platform’ from which other UK government departments can ply their trade: individuals from all over Whitehall arrive at a mission with their own appraisal systems, expectations and the like and then proceed to “sort of” half report into their home department in London, and half into the local Ambassador.

 

Confused?

 

You should be. They are. And it is.

 

This wouldn’t matter so much if we weren’t all paying for it. But we are.

 

And until Sir Gus, or his successor, is prepared to develop some kind of universally-understood performance management system and - crucially - culture across Whitehall, it is only going to become more expensive.

 

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