Matrix Management

The irrelevance of solid and dotted reporting lines

When we work with people in increasingly connected matrix, network and virtual organisations we get a lot of questions about reporting lines – what are the benefits and best balance of solid, dotted or just virtual lines. People obsess about the nature of their reporting lines and what they mean.

This focus on reporting lines seems to imply that we can solve our problems through those reporting lines. If we do, then we are using traditional authority and hierarchy to get things done – something that few people think is the right way to lead a modern business. It also implies escalation which always leads to delay and additional cost, and only occasionally leads to better decisions.

During my corporate career I wrestled with this challenge. When I was a manufacturing manager there was a really good quality manager who I wanted to work in all my ad hoc and cross functional teams. Eventually I was using quite a lot of his time and his boss came to me to remind me that his reporting line was to the quality function.

However, this quality manager was critical to some important initiatives that I was driving, so I convinced the business to give me a dotted line reporting relationship with him. Now I had, in theory, a formal right to a certain percentage of his time. Did this help? In reality I was already getting about as much of his time through inviting him onto ad hoc teams, so it didn’t make much difference to his resource allocation. If there was a conflict of priorities, at the end of the day he still knew who his solid line boss was, and so the quality function still got priority. So the dotted line didn’t really help that much.

I often describe dotted lines as “matrix light”, they give the impression of balance but for unimportant issues they are usually not necessary and for important issues they are usually not sufficient.

To try and solve my problem of access to the quality manager, I persuaded the business to give me a solid reporting line too. Now the quality manager has a solid line to me and a solid line to the quality director. Does this solve the problem? In fact, now he has two solid lines, we may as well have none. The reporting lines no longer solve the problem, we have to do it through discussion and agreement – just as we did before we wasted so much time adding increasingly solid lines.

As organisations mature into more connected and complex ways of working, it’s clear that organisational structure is too blunt and slow an instrument to give us the flexibility we need to succeed. If things have to be referred through multiple reporting lines then any resolution will be slow and top-down.

Reporting lines are traditionally about control and ownership. Collaboration in complex companies should be about engaging with the people you need to get things done irrespective of reporting relationships. Work is becoming more horizontal, it cuts across the traditional vertical silos and reporting lines of function and geography.

Work is also becoming more collaborative, the majority of professional and managerial people now work on multiple teams at the same time. These teams don’t have formal reporting lines but do consume resource and attention.

Imagine if you have two bosses and work on four teams, escalating up reporting lines to resolve your prioritisation is going to be far too slow to get everything done.

It is time we stopped defaulting to hierarchy and reporting lines and thought more about what needs to be done and how we need to engage with others to do this. I know this isn’t as simple as it sounds because reporting lines usually also define budgets, careers and accountabilities. As organisations become increasingly connected we will need to evolve new systems that enable us to account for and recognise the success of increasingly flexible resources, applied to faster changing goals.

If organisations really want to break the silos and encourage horizontal collaboration we really need to redefine the nature of reporting lines.

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