Leadership 101: The Loose Matrix

Those of us who work in project management or consulting are intimately familiar with the loose matrix. Leading a loose matrix effort requires the unwavering support of project sponsors and a dedicated team. Even in the best environments, loose matrix projects compete with the priorities of functional managers. Ultimately, the resource will chose to align his/her work to the desires of their real “boss.” This is constant source of project conflict and often the root-cause of project failure.

If you’re not 100 percent sure what loose matrix is, here’s a clue:

You’re responsible for accomplishing something — some project, task, or managing some program. You’re not anyone’s boss (you might be a contractor), no one reports to you, you can’t fire or hire or replace anyone or change any of the workload or priorities.

You’re supposed to have people do things for you to support this project or program, but no one really does, and when you ask for assistance, no one really cares. What’s worse: the quality of any work that is done is so poor that you have to (1) Do it yourself, or (2) Ask them to redo it, in which case you catch a rash of shit about how the work is just fine, they don’t have time for your ridiculous nit-picking followed by an outright refusal or a stall in rework, so you probably should have done it yourself, which is what everyone is hoping you’ll do anyway.

You’ve spent a lot of late nights and a couple weekends doing stuff that should have been done by others. You aren’t paid overtime but work for free because you’re afraid of failing, getting yelled at, getting fired, or letting down a whole bunch of people who are depending on you. So, that’s why you’re in your cubical stifling tears of rage while everyone else left early for Miller time.

Does this sound like your life? And on top of all of “help” you don’t receive, and all the work you need to re-do, and all the “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me” back-talk you get, none of this makes any difference to your boss (who doesn’t know what loose matrix is, either).

He just doesn’t get what your problem is. You clearly have no leadership or management skills, and you can’t seem to garner the respect needed from the team to get anything done. He’s been working with these people for years, and hasn’t had any issues. When he says jump, they jump! The problem is clearly: YOU. Your style, your approach, YOU.

Au contraire: Charisma and chocolate chip cookies only go so far. The carrot doesn’t make up for the stick, and in a loose matrix you have neither.

The most frustrating thing about loose matrix is that oftentimes leadership doesn’t recognize that the problem is the matrix structure, not the people. This is where you can help your client/manager understand exactly what you need to be successful. If you find yourself in a loose matrix that isn’t working, muster some courage. Here’s what to say:

“I cannot accomplish <thesegoals> without the time of <name(s)>. I need to have <#ofhours/days> from <names> every week dedicated to me and this project. If <person> cannot accomplish the work within the timeframe needed, I must have <budget/recourse> to replace the resource on my project.”

This is where everyone starts to eye roll, grunt and groan about how they agree, but can’t we do this more “informally” and that this “structure,” is too much, and let’s not, like, harshen the mellow with things like “deadlines” and “objectives.” In other words: Why can’t you just be less high-maintenance, get off my back, and continue to do the work for us, like the girls used to in college group work?

If people don’t report to you – in other words — you cannot get rid of him/her — do not accept responsibility for them or their work. Nagging and harassing people to do their jobs are what a boss does. And, you’re not the boss. If you can’t hold your ground in this kind of situation, you really shouldn’t be managing anyone or anything anyway, so don’t be afraid to put your job on the line. Here’s what to say:

“I’ve documented for you, my <client>, what I need to accomplish <thistask>. Of course, it’s your prerogative to find another resource to do this, but if you want ME to do it for you, this is what I need.”

If you’re in a loose matrix and you don’t have the authority to make decisions, get rid of people, and you don’t have the unwavering support of management, start looking for an exit strategy sooner rather than later. Here’s why:

If you aren’t supported, and you don’t pro-actively leave, be assured your poor leadership will be associated with a failed or poorly executed project (trust me: no one will remember all the help you didn’t get). And, if by chance the project is not a failure, you’ve perpetuated the dysfunction by signing up for more free weekends, more resentful afternoons, and more shiftless work ethic from your “team.” Congratulations. Well done.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have spent more than my fair share of time crying in the ladies’ room and working late nights and weekends because of lazy, disrespectful co-workers and clients in these poorly conceived project structures. No more.

If you are stuck in the matrix, wiggle out and do it quickly. Spend less time being a big coward, covering for others, and working for free. Take your dedication and hard work to a job where you’ll get the money and recognition you deserve.


Excerpted from The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker, 2017 Available on Amazon Kindle or hard copy

Copyright 2020 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

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