Team Building and Development in a Matrix Environment

What is a team?

There are many kinds of teams. A functional team is a permanent team established to conduct operational activities for a particular part of the organization, such as finance, sales, marketing, etc. There is no specified time limit on functional teams as they are needed to keep the business running. A project team is brought together for a discrete period of time to achieve a defined goal. At the end of the project the team is disbanded. Project teams are often matrix in nature, staffed by members taken from diverse functional teams in order to achieve the project goal. When the Project Manager has a high degree of authority this is known as a strong matrix; when Functional Managers have stronger authority this is known as a weak matrix.

In all organizational structures, there are many ‘teams within teams’. For example, if I am the Manager, I might have several teams within my overall team:

– Me and the whole team

– Me and each individual in my management team

– Me and all of my management team

– Me and my peers in other departments

– Each management team individual and their direct reports

This is complicated enough if the structure is a well-defined functional hierarchy. However, a matrix environment for completing projects adds in another layer of complexity. The functional ‘teams within teams’ still exist and each person has a functional ‘home’ team, but now they also belong to a ‘project’ team which has a finite life span.

All of these teams need nurturing if a project is to be successful. In a matrix environment, allegiance to the project is not created by the structure itself, but rather as a result of the relationships that are developed within the project team. Relationships in all teams are important for success, but on matrix teams, particularly weak matrix teams, where the project manager may have little authority, they are especially important. On such teams, relationships are more difficult to establish, are more fragile, and can be more easily destroyed. Keeping a diverse group of people together in a matrix team depends on building loyalty and trust.

Phases of Team Development

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman developed the theory that a team went through certain phases of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. The phases can be summarized as follows:

– Forming – the team comes together, starts to understand the goals and boundaries, initiates the tasks, but each individual is still working somewhat independently. Managers need to be directive at this stage in order to steer the team toward the goal.

– Storming – ideas and approaches start to be exchanged about how the work can be accomplished, and this can result in conflict. This phase is critical for the growth of the team, and results in individuals learning ways to work together. Managers still need to be directive at this stage, and also accessible to ensure that conflict is resolved and the team is starting to move forward toward the goal.

– Norming – the team starts to feel a sense of achievement, rules of operation (either formal or informal) are working, and trust begins to form. Managers start to be participative, and need to be available to provide guidance as the team continues to grow together.

– Performing – the team is now maturing and often high performing. Work is accomplished, team members know how to work together, and even though conflict takes place it is managed and navigated with skill and can enhance productivity. The team requires very little supervision at this point and can largely make its own decisions.

Tuckman later added a final phase ‘adjourning’ to acknowledge that teams, in particular project teams, typically break up after the objectives of the project are complete.

Team Building Techniques

Team building activities are conducted in order to develop loyalty and trust which are a critical foundation for getting the most effective results from a matrix project team. Team building is not just about creating ‘fun’ events, although that is part of it. It is also not just about understanding team members through personality assessments, although again, that is part of it. The most effective team building involves combining a variety of tools and techniques.

– Kick off meetings – a new project should be initiated with a kick off meeting so that the purpose of the project, roles and responsibilities and how the project fits into the organization’s overall goals can be understood. This technique can be used in all types of teams, but in a matrix project team that has come together with staff from multiple different sources it is especially important as the team has no established context for the project.

– Team agreements – Teams that know how to work together are more likely to be effective and efficient. Establishing agreements can assist in this process. Collaboratively establishing ground rules for how a team will operate will provide the team with clarity and will ease communication over issues such as boundaries, responsibilities, and team member behavior. Functional teams already have this established through the use of departmental policies and procedures. However for newly formed matrix project teams that do not have rules of operation established as part of their formal organization structure, team agreements is a necessary aspect of building an effective team.

– Delivery process definition – Understanding how the work is to be accomplished makes it easier for a team to work together. Functional teams typically have the process for delivering the work established as part of the departmental rules. Given that the nature of each project may be different, matrix project teams typically do not have initial stated rules for delivering the work. For example, if a software development team is unsure which development lifecycle (waterfall, agile, etc) is being followed to achieve the project goal, confusion and a lack of productivity by the team may result. Clearly defining and establishing a process that is understood by all the players in the newly formed matrix team is critical for the success of the project.

– Conflict management- A skillful Manager will understand that conflict happens on any team and will take the initiative to establish a clear process for managing it. This provides clarity to the team in the event that conflict does occur. A newly created matrix project team will find this especially helpful as the team is not used to working together and will need to navigate this as part of the process of maturing as a team. This will also help the team move more quickly through the ‘storming’ phase of group development.

– Personality assessments – An effective way to understand the other members of a newly formed matrix project team is through team building sessions using personality assessments. These can be simple and quick assessments, such as the Personality Profile: The Shapes Test, or more complex assessments which include Strengthsfinder, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, FIRO-B, Kiersey Temperament Sorter, etc. Regardless of the specific assessment conducted, the results can bring a team significant value in determining how team members can be best utilized, how the project manager can best communicate with specific team members to get the best outcomes, and how people like to be managed to make them efficient and productive. For matrix project teams, personality assessments can help shorten the process by which the team matures and learns to work together to get the results needed by the project.

– Team building events – Group events encourage positive team dynamics to develop and mature. In matrix environments, the development of loyalty and trust is critical to the stability and effectiveness of the matrix structure. Engaging people in activities outside the project allows them to get to know each other in a more relaxed setting and is quite effective in building team esprit de corps. In addition, this allows people to find ways to work together in a non-stressful environment that can then be carried back to the workplace. Some options are:

– Social events – participating in a social activity can create a team spirit that encourages people to support each other when they are at work

– Team building ‘games’ – building or creating something outside of the project may engender a camaraderie that can then be carried back to the working day

– End of project celebration – to acknowledge the success of the project meeting the goal

– Executive Coaching – Individual and group coaching can be an effective tool in all types of organizational structures. Executive Coaches can facilitate team development, as well as individual leadership development, by focusing on areas such as collaboration skills, negotiation skills, addressing personal or group blind spots, and improving communication. For matrix project teams, Executive Coaches can assist in team building events, as well as facilitate personality assessments, and help the group understand its own dynamics and assist the team in becoming more effective. Executive Coaches can also help teams and individuals navigate conflict in an emotionally healthy way that allows the team to move quickly through the ‘storming’ phase of a project and onto the next phases, thus becoming more productive more quickly.

– Regular status updates – There are a variety of ways that status can be gathered and communicated. This is a natural activity in a functional team, as members are typically used to an established status reporting routine and may be more clear on their role in that structure. For newly formed matrix project teams it is important that team members feel that they belong to the team, and can see how their progress affects the overall progress toward the goal. Examples:

– Weekly status meetings

– One on one sessions

– Project dashboards

– Project status reports

– Clear Task Assignment – Assigning work that is relevant, achievable and appropriately challenging for the individual is important in all types of teams. In newly formed matrix project teams it is especially important to make this clear, as clarity is not necessarily provided by the structure itself, as it is in functional teams. Defining tasks clearly and explaining how team members’ roles in completing project tasks contributes to the success of the project, especially in the early stages of team development, is critical to the effectiveness and productivity of the team.

– Recognition and rewards – its is always important to recognize people that either go above and beyond, and in matrix project teams this can feel especially rewarding for the team members, if it has taken both the individuals and the team itself some considerable work to get to the point of operating smoothly together to achieve project goals. This can be in the form of a simple thank you, certificates, bonuses, gift cards, etc.

The techniques described can be used in any type of organizational structure, but are especially important for building loyalty and productivity in matrix teams. In a functional environment a level of allegiance is created by virtue of the structure itself, as there is only one focus for a team member’s loyalty. In a matrix environment a team member has multiple loyalties and may be more loyal to his or her home team than the project team. In addition, projects often have aggressive deadlines and so it is critical that project teams become efficient, effective, and productive as quickly as possible.

The techniques described above can be mapped to Tuckerman’s phases, as described below.

Forming:

– Kick off meetings

– Establish team agreement

– Personality assessments

– Goal Definition

– Clear task assignment

Storming:

– Delivery process definition

– Develop Conflict Management approach

– Executive Coaching

– Goal Reinforcement

– Clear task assignment

– Regular Status Updates

Norming

– Goal Reinforcement

– Executive Coaching

– Team building events

– Clear task assignment

– Regular Status Updates

Performing

– Regular Status Updates

– Recognition and Rewards

Adjourning

– Plan project celebration/social event

– Conduct lessons learned/post project review

Summary

In summary, team structures, even in well ordered functionally structured organizations, are inherently complex. Today’s matrixed organizations make that complexity even greater. Matrix project team members have multiple loyalties and if the team is not cohesive, these divided loyalties can be harmful to the success of the project. There is a variety of team building techniques that can be undertaken to help make teams in matrixed environments more cohesive and successful. Seasoned and successful managers and leaders will continually analyze the team, determine which of Tuckman’s phases the team is in, as well as the needs of individuals, so that effective team building techniques can be employed appropriately.

Karen Davey-Winter is an Executive Coach with over 20 years of experience in Director and Manager roles in large IT organizations. She has managed teams of over 150 people, and has considerable skill in navigating matrix organizational structures, developing leaders, influencing through collaboration and building effective teams.

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