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Post Leadership
Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 04/18/2012

With GSA scandal, blame the matrix?


Jeff Neely of the General Services Administration declines to testify before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on April 16. (Yuri Gripas - Reuters)

The scandal plaguing the GSA just keeps getting worse. It turns out that Jeffrey Neely, the senior government executive who coordinated the over-the-top conference that’s the focus of a GSA investigation, brought his wife along on some of his trips — on taxpayers’ dime. Five additional long-time GSA employees have been placed on administrative leave as the investigation broadens.

How could this happen? To start, the organization seems to have developed a culture that allowed for such excess to thrive. But as the agency’s former administrator, Martha Johnson, said Tuesday, the GSA’s confusing organizational structure also played a role. The way the GSA was organized is so complex, the Post reports Johnson saying, that not even the agency’s top manager could understand its so-called “matrix.”

She’s not the only one. Matrix organizations — which differ from traditional hierarchies in that employees report to multiple bosses — may be commonplace, and sometimes quite effective. In today’s increasingly global and project-based world, an informal or hybrid version of a matrix, in which employees have a clear, single boss but work informally for others, is often critical.

But when poorly designed, such set-ups are fraught with problems. Though intended to help manage projects more efficiently, they often slow down decision-making, muddle lines of authority and obfuscate real problems. They create power struggles between two managers competing for employees’ time and resources.

As a result, employees often hate these organizational models. What we all want at work is to know what’s expected of us, understand who can help us get things done, and get feedback on how we’re doing. Matrix organizations that aren’t designed well stretch employees too thin, result in mixed messages, and can cause employees to miss out on feedback because each manager thinks the other is giving it.

These problems are hardly new. In their famous 1982 book In Search of Excellence, management consultants Tom Peters and Bob Waterman wrote that the formal matrix organization “regularly degenerates into anarchy and rapidly becomes bureaucratic and non-creative.” While some management consultants swear by them, others call them “a petri dish for dysfunction.” And some CEOs have tried to scuttle them entirely: In an effort to streamline senior management at the struggling Internet firm, in 2009 former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz reshuffled her team, in effect getting rid of the matrix to make managers more accountable.

As a result, it’s easy to see how a matrix might hide the actions of someone like Jeff Neely, the acting commissioner of the GSA’s Pacific Rim region. He allegedly ran his organization like a “fiefdom,” intimidating employees who dared to question him, holding on to too much autonomy, and still garnering bonuses and positive performance reviews despite questions about his spending. “Not since Jack Abramoff has someone walked with such swagger,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said Tuesday.

If Neely reported to more than one person in a matrix-style set-up, it would have been all too easy for those in charge to think someone else would deal with the problem. It’s human nature, after all, to assume others will step up unless we’re specifically invested with the responsibility. Well-designed informal matrix organizations may be necessary in today’s complex world. But having too many lines of authority can be just as bad as having none at all.

More from On Leadership:

Beneath the Secret Service scandal

Defense of Leon Panetta’s flights only goes so far

How to completely destroy an employee’s work life

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By  |  10:55 AM ET, 04/18/2012

 
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