Managing Expectations and the Growth of Reports in a Matrix System

Shawn Zeller

Senior Engineering Manager at Dropbox



Managing teams in a matrix system can be difficult. Developers are not only reporting to a functional manager but a product manager as well. The system is beneficial, though, because there is better cross-pollination of information between members of the same team. Also, when necessary, people can be moved around like chess pieces within the organization however needed to benefit the projects at hand. As a leader you need to optimize for what the company is trying to get out of the matrix structure even if issues are present. Here are some examples of those issues and how to manage them.

Actions taken

How do you manage expectations for a project team that you don't manage? At the project level there needs to be accountability. Somebody needs to be evaluating the productivity of each team member and the work that they are doing. Each person affects the team and so a performance issue for that project team comes down to the set of expectations for that project and who is handling those expectations, aka the manager of the project. Therefore, it is best practice to approach the manager of the project and discuss with him/her the clarity of those expectations and who is being held accountable. Then be very transparent about those expectations with your whole team so that everyone, team members and team leads, understand what is expected of them.

How do you grow direct reports when you are not managing the project that they are on? Set performance goals. Decide what it means to be an average employee and then what it means to be above average. Use work output as the standard and compare it to how they are performing today and then again at a later date. Present opportunities or make them aware of projects that would be interesting for them to work on. Know what skill sets they have or are deficient in. Put them in situations where they can make use of their skills or where they can learn new ones.

Lessons learned

  • In a matrix system, it is difficult to manage work expectations for a project that you are not managing. You usually have to be in the weeds with the team to actually understand what stories the engineers are working on so that you can evaluate for future productivity and performance.
  • Be clear and transparent about expectations so that during performance reviews there is no confusion about what should or shouldn't have been accomplished according to the employee, the functional and the product manager.

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Shawn Zeller

Senior Engineering Manager at Dropbox

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