Agile & Digital

The end of solid and dotted lines

On our matrix management training programs a lot of participants want to discuss the difference between solid and dotted line reporting relationships and how to manage multiple reporting lines.

The idea is that a solid line reporting relationship is the primary one and the dotted line is a secondary and slightly less strong relationship.

The first time I experienced this was when I was in manufacturing and I was trying to get a quality manager to join my improvement teams. He was a great guy and I wanted him on lots of teams. Eventually his line manager objected, I was taking too much of his time. But I needed his expertise, so I persuaded the business to give me a dotted line to the quality manager.

I quickly found that this didn’t really work, if it came to a conflict the quality manager, quite rightly, paid more attention to his solid line manager who was more important to his career and performance evaluation.

So I persuaded the business to give me a solid line too. Now the quality manager has two solid lines. Did that’s solve the problem?

In reality, now that he had two equally strong lines I realised that I couldn’t get things done through the lines themselves – the power lines canceled each other out. Once we have two reporting lines, we may as well have none!

When I realised this I gave up on the power game and moved to what I should have done originally, getting aligned with the quality director and influencing and motivating the quality manager personally to engage him in the work that needed doing.

In an increasingly horizontal, matrix and digital world, reporting lines are becoming a real distraction. Instead we need the ability to form and reform autonomous teams and groups to do the work that needs doing, regardless of the power structure (which often gets in the way).

When we worry about reporting lines we are worrying about power and control. We should instead be concerned with creating purpose and empowerment.

The matrix started to undermine traditional power and control by changing one of It’s bedrocks – unified command and control, the single reporting line. As we increasingly work in cross functional agile and digital teams, the traditional reporting lines become less and less relevant in exercising control.

We can’t imagine a fast moving digital team having to stop and escalate for decisions from each of the individual functional reporting lines.

Digital doesn’t and shouldn’t respect silos.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Harriet Rubin “Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.”

It’s my hope that digital transformation will finally undermine our obsession with power and control and lead to a more aligned yet autonomous ways of working. If you’d like to find out how to make that happen, give us a call.


Educate yourself further with a few more or our online insights:

30 years of experience learning with a range of world class clients

We work with a wide range of clients from global multinationals to recent start-ups. Our audiences span all levels, from CEOs to operational teams around the world.  Our tools and programs have been developed for diverse and demanding audiences.

View more of our clients
Two woman talking with a cup of coffee

Tailored training or off the shelf modules for your people development needs

We are deep content experts in remote, virtual and hybrid working, matrix management and agile & digital leadership. We are highly flexible in how we deliver our content and ideas. We can tailor content closely to your specific needs or deliver off the shelf bite sized modules based on our existing IP and 30 years of training experience.

For more about how we deliver our keynotes, workshops, live web seminars and online learning.

Discover our training solutions