“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” – Peter Drucker

For the past seven months I have been managing a difficult IT project for a large organization. The experience has me convinced that middle management is the ultimate roadblock to agility. I get why they call it the frozen middle. To understand the root of the problem, you must look beyond managers themselves. The core of the issue lies within organizational structure and culture.

While many companies are undergoing agile transformations, most still use old organizational models. The matrix structure is a top offender. Loaded with hierarchy, bureaucracy and management layers, it is anything but agile. If an agile team were superman, the matrix organization would be kryptonite.

Below are some of the ways the matrix organization impedes agility:

Disjointed Functional Areas

The matrix organization splits functional areas into groups. In IT for example, developers belong to one group, QA analyst to another, and so on. The employees within the group’s report to a manager. The manager then places employees on projects within the company.

Here’s the problem. Functional groups are setup to be in conflict against each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen functional areas point blame at each other when challenges arise. “It’s development’s fault”, or ” its QA’s fault”. Instead of promoting an attitude of one team, the matrix environment sets the stage for political strife. Managers snipe at one another as they fight to stand their ground.

The result of all the political warfare is hindered project teams. Team members just want to accomplish their work. Instead they get harassed by managers who need ammo to defend their functional area.

The Value-Add Dilemma for Functional Managers

IT functional managers working in a matrix environment have a dilemma. They usually come from a background of product delivery, where their contributions were clear to see. When they leave the trenches of project work to become managers, they realize their new role is about staffing. How then are they to prove their value if they are not delivering work? They attempt this in two ways.

First, they involve themselves into areas where they aren’t needed. As a project manager and Scrum Master, I have had to ask functional managers to not attend project team meetings. In teams, the presence of non-core members causes disruption. Teams operate at peak performance when each member of the team knows and trusts each other. The moment you introduce someone who is not part of a team, especially a ‘manager’, everyone clams up. The team reverts to the ‘forming’ stage of Bruce Tuckman’s four stage team building model.

Second, functional managers try to prove their worth by raising ‘concerns’ to leadership. Since they are on the sidelines for projects, voicing concerns about potential issues gives them an outlet for exposure. It’s a way for them to say, hey I think there is an issue, see how I’m adding value? Unfortunately, this often results in a lot of noise and distractions. While their intentions may be good, they end up stirring the pot.

These behaviors are not the fault of the managers themselves. They are usually good people with strong backgrounds. The problem is not the people. The problem is the functional management role itself. It doesn’t give people a way to add value.

Forming teams around projects

The matrix organization forms teams around projects. It’s not uncommon for people to be on two, three or even four projects at a time. This results in switching costs, the cost of doing more than one complex task as a time. Studies show that when people switch their thinking to different topics, their productivity goes down.

Poor team development is another result of forming teams around projects. Assigning employees to new projects doesn’t allow enough time for team development. It takes people working together for a while before a high performing team emerges. The moment you assemble a new team for a project, the team building process starts from scratch.

PMO’s

When it comes to process overload, the PMO (Project Management Office) is the worst. PMO’s force organizations to follow rigid standards, processes and tools. Many are trying to adapt to agile practices, but the results are the same. Too much process and bureaucracy. It goes against the first principle outlined in the popular Agile manifesto. Individuals and interactions are valued more than processes and tools.

While processes and controls are necessary for organizations, too much is an agility killer. Forcing project teams to create wasteful documentation is a common problem. I once had a manager ask that a large test plan be created for each Agile two-week sprint. The result was a QA analyst spending more time working on a test plan than collaborating with the team. To achieve agility, you must value working software more than documentation.

The Solutions to the Middle Management Conundrum

The best way to combat these issues is by forming stable, cross functional, capability teams. True agile teams. The teams can use whatever framework, processes or tools that work best for them. They don’t have to follow arbitrary processes from a PMO.

There are many benefits to the stable product delivery teams’ model. It eliminates the need for excessive management by doing away with functional groups. This puts emphasis on product delivery and providing value to the customer. It also reduces the internal politics that the matrix organization creates.

By keeping teams intact, it allows enough time for team development. Instead of forming teams around projects, project work goes through teams. This is a mindset shift away from traditional project management to modern product delivery.

Agile teams report up through one line of management. Managers are responsible for strategy and ownership of their capability. This gives managers clear roles and responsibilities that provide value. They engage in product delivery.

Part of the goal with the product team model is to create a flatter organization and to adopt an agile culture. While these changes are hard for large organizations, many companies are having success. In Minneapolis, where I live, companies like Best Buy, Target, United Health Group, and TCF Bank are making significant progress. They understand that the balanced matrix organization is no longer adequate to stay competitive.

Organizations still using the balanced matrix structure need to change. Implementing a stable product team model improves agility and benefits the customer. It also provides a more enjoyable work environment for managers and employees.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master. You can follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.