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You’re Wrong, but Not Alone: Four Horrible Truths for Surviving Matrix Management

One of the first jobs of my professional career required me to serve as a technical link between Intel Corporation’s mask operations experts and its factory yield specialists. The challenge stemmed from the fact that, at the time, we were on the bleeding edge of what was technically possible, inventing the future as we went.  Specifications and requirements that at first seemed straightforward and uncontroversial quickly became difficult to create and confusing to interpret. It wasn’t uncommon for the two organizations to think they were on the same page only to discover that their agreement didn’t work, that it wasn’t fully understood, or – maybe most often – that what originally appeared to be a complete set of parameters suddenly seemed inadequate in light of new information.

Of course, when I say it this way, it makes it sound like we uncovered these discrepancies over coffee, in comfortable chairs, with smooth jazz playing in the background. Actually, the discoveries tended to look more like one hard-charging-part of the organization suddenly realizing that the other part had done something that DIDN’T WORK FOR THEIR NEEDS and would create CRITICAL DELAYS and cause FINANCIAL IMPACTS if it wasn’t corrected IMMEDIATELY even though what they wanted might be TECHNICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. The capitalization isn’t mine, by the way – it’s based on which words were pushed across phone lines at the highest volume. I know this because it often fell to me, a 25-year-old engineer just a couple years out of university, to get these highly intelligent, heavily goal-driven, and (ahem) relatively headstrong technical managers and leaders to have conversations, gather data, share information, come to agreement, and make adjustments that they DIDN’T WANT TO MAKE – especially since the two groups reported into different bosses and structures.

It turned out, I wasn’t bad at this – maybe because I have thick skin, and definitely because I was lucky enough to work for managers who supported my potential rather than overriding my every move. So I suppose it’s not hugely surprising that I ended up progressing from an engineer, to a leader in matrixed organizations, to a weirdo former engineer-turned-unusual-management-consultant who is more concerned about how management works as a complex, open, dynamic, emergent, coherent system than about what results it gets on any given day.

The thing is, because of that progression, I now know something I didn’t know back then:  I wasn’t alone. Plenty of people in matrixed organizations find themselves hamstrung between competing structures, just like I was.  So, whether you’re a senior leader or middle manager, should you find yourself caught this way too, pulled apart by various parts of your company debating each other in capital letters, I wanted to offer you four truths that might help. They’re excerpted directly from my bestseller Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team, and they come with a warning: they’re not just truths – they’re horrible truths. If you’re a Ted Lasso fan, you no doubt remember Dr. Sharon telling Ted that “the truth will set you free, but first it will p**s you off.” Be warned:

First, management isn’t sexy. Making incremental adjustments to organizational resources to keep the enterprise on target may be the least attractive part of the work, as viewed from the outside. It’s not high-tech, it’s not customer facing, and it’s not terribly exciting to talk about. The fact that acting as the feedback system for the organization is critically important—and that it can be interesting and engaging to the manager who’s actually doing it—doesn’t change any of that.

Second, management is about being “wrong.” In Iterative Management®, every step leads to new information, and every new piece of information informs every step. Management is about making the best decision possible and then discovering upon implementation that things aren’t going as planned. Often that discovery comes packaged as criticism: “Why didn’t you see this coming?” The truth is, often management can’t see it coming. All it can do—must do—is adjust and adjust again. Fail forward, fast.

Third, management can only allocate resources. The management team can’t change the customer, the products, the services, the marketplace, the board, the ownership, or the future. All it can do is assign resources—people, money, and equipment—to get the work done. And since most resources are fully assigned, all it can really do is contemplate changes to resource assignments already in place. The only decision management ever makes is whether to leave resources alone or, if not, how to move them around. (Sometimes, some managers can change goals too – but not always, and not all of them.)

Lastly (maybe worst of all), management is succeeding when it’s resource constrained. Moving resources around almost always involves taking them away from something else. That’s because the balance between opportunities and resources is never perfect, and it’s preferable to have too few resources rather than too few opportunities. In the best-case scenario, management is all about stealing resources from good opportunities to apply them to better ones. And while that sounds good on paper, in reality it makes for some terribly difficult decisions, especially since those not-good-enough options always have strong, emotional advocates.

(Source: Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team by Ed Muzio, An Inc. Original)

It sure would have been nice to know these things back in my 20’s: To know that I was serving an unpopular but important function, that I was destined to be “wrong” over and over, and that my possible avenues for action mostly involved taking resources from those who didn’t want change. The knowledge wouldn’t have made my job easier, exactly, but it would have lowered my stress while doing it. That would have made my life better, for sure, and maybe even increased my level of performance.  Unstressed brains are creative brains, after all.

If you’re leading or managing in a matrixed environment, I hope you can take some solace in the fact that you’re not alone. It’s hard, it’s supposed to be hard, and all you can do is take your next best step from here. I wish you well, and I hope that, after it p**ses you off, this truth sets you free.  Because either way, you’ll still be wrong again tomorrow.

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