How to Define Dotted Line Working Relationships

“The manager is accountable for the results of the team member, I totally get this,” Ed agreed. “But, I have a manager in charge of new product development, that includes new product planning, market research, prototyping, product testing, re-engineering based on feedback. He is also in charge of the product launch before he hands the product over to production and sustaining engineering. He uses all kinds of resources for that, from marketing to engineering. How does the accountability work here?”

“Project teams happen all the time,” I replied. “Projects often require a multitude of expert talent from across the organization. But what you describe is not a special circumstance. You describe the normal workflow of every organization. Most organization charts are ordered top to bottom, with managerial layers to fix accountability in each of the disciplines. It is very orderly but workflow doesn’t happen up and down through managerial layers. Workflow happens horizontally across the organization. Tell me how things work around here.”

Ed cleared his throat as he began his description, “A customer project is surfaced through marketing, negotiated through sales, turned over to engineering for project specifications and design, pushed into operations for production, delivered to logistics for installation, inspected by quality assurance and maintained through warranty and customer service. You are right, work happens horizontally. So, how does accountability work horizontally?”

“Have you ever looked at an org chart and seen dotted lines between people from different departments?”

Ed nodded. “Yes, you said to get rid of our dotted lines. You said dotted lines create ambiguity and that ambiguity kills accountability. Isn’t that what we are talking about?”

“Yep,” I confessed. “I lied. I don’t really want you to get rid of your dotted lines, I want you clearly define the specific accountability and authority that goes along with those horizontal working relationships. These horizontal working relationships are normal and frequent, but most of the time they are undefined. Undefined working relationships leave people to make up their own rules and that’s where the accountability trouble begins.”

“So, what about my manager who borrows engineers to build prototypes for new product development?”

“Your manager who borrows, not just engineers, but marketing and product testing people, is a classic example of a project leader. The project leader borrows people either on a part-time basis or a full-time basis for a limited duration of time. If the project leader used the engineer on a permanent full-time basis, then that would properly be a managerial relationship.”

“So, the part-time status or the full-time limited duration status changes things?” Ed wanted to know.

“Yes, the project leader, in a cross functional working relationship, borrows team members from other disciplines. The project leader must arrange with the engineer’s manager for that working arrangement. Now, here is a question. Who is accountable for the quality of the engineer’s output on the project?”

Ed had been around me too long. “If the project leader is in a cross functional relationship with the engineer, the engineer’s manager is still accountable for engineer’s output, no matter what project he is working on.”

“True,” I acknowledged. “So, what if the engineer underperforms on the project? What does the project leader do?”

Ed thought for a minute. “The project leader goes to the engineer’s manager and describes the underperformance. Because the engineering manager controls engineering resources, the engineering manager can add another engineer to the project, or replace the engineer on the project, depending on the context of all engineering support required in the company.”

I nodded my agreement. “This is a very thoughtful and respectful working relationship between the project leader and the engineering manager. The project leader is requesting and receiving a service from the engineering manager.”

Cross-funtional Working Relationships
Service Getting

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