You’re always going to need a project manager for your new donor-funded project, right?  Each project needs its own team, doesn’t it?

Well, er no.  Not really.

One of the biggest wastes of funding at the moment is in the duplication of staffing structures and infrastructure, when donors want their own teams and own vehicles, warehouses, etc.

Another inefficiency is having the wrong team structure in place.  It is almost considered best practice to have a highly qualified technical specialist in charge of delivering projects on the ground.  Well-trained and highly skilled individuals somehow give donors comfort that someone who “knows what they are doing” is in charge.  Well that’s just wrong really.  Just because an individual knows all about the epidemiology of HIV for example, doesn’t mean that they know anything about supply chain management to implement a condom distribution project or a male circumcision project.  You can have ten Phd’s behind your name, if none of them are in planning and distribution, you’re not going to know how to get product to the field and through that final mile to people’s homes and communities efficiently and effectively.  You are however going to know which product is going to be the right one (male condoms over female condoms for example), and you’re going to know how quickly a change in behaviour or reported infections is supposed to be seen.  Technical specialists are important, but they don’t have to run the show.

Equally, operations is important and people who have specialised in knowing how to get stuff done will play a crucial role in actually implementing the projects and activities.  But ultimately it comes down to being able to “sell” the project or activity to both the community and to the donor that really matters.  After all, it isn’t going to count for much if your highly skilled technical specialist and your highly experienced supply chain manager are in place, but you have no funding for the project or buy and ownership from the community.

The Matrix management approach suggests in short that you have one flat team (rather than the hierarchical teams we are used to) and that project planning and design flows from the technical specialists (the people who know what is supposed to work or have come up with a great idea for something brand new or different) to the marketeers (the bunch who can sell ice to eskimos) to determine whether the new idea or project can be marketed to donors and communities, and if successful onto the operations people, who will actually deliver the project on the ground.

Sounds straightforward I know, but in reality very few NGOs work like this, while in the private sector loads of companies operate in this way.

A matrix approach also relies on and facilitates a lot of internal communication.  After all, no one person or team can deliver a project on its own and so people have to talk to each other and the beneficiaries to know what is going on and how to improve delivery.

Of course this blog entry follows on from last week’s blog entry as this management approach also allows you to make the most of a flexible strategy approach.  If a tech. specialist comes up with a great idea, your strategy should be flexible enough to accommodate developing that idea with both marketing and operational input to make it attractive to donors and beneficiaries (in other words loads of beneficiary testing during development, or user-testing or consumer testing as it is also known).

Is all of this just standard business management principles? Yes.  Do NGOs operate in this way? No.  Should they? Yes.  Can they? Yes.  There is nothing stopping an NGO using matrix management, I’ve seen it used successfully myself.  The challenge is of course that this approach flies in the face of accepted conventional wisdom and that can be extremely difficult to challenge.

Have you ever worked in a matrix management organisation? Do you think that this management approach has a place in NGOs?  What has your experience of organisational structures been?


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