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Dotted Line Relationships Are Everywhere – Get Good at Them!

By Andy Warren,

Today we have a guest editorial from Andy Warren.

I’ll start by defining dotted line relationships as situations where you manage (or are managed) by someone outside the direct (solid line) chain of command. It’s a common situation, but often uncomfortable and stressful for someone forced into the situation. We like the safety and sureness of getting directives from our manager, or of giving directives to our direct reports. It’s easy for everyone to understand and everyone can concentrate on doing rather than asking ‘should we be doing?’.

In practice these relationships happen all the time. Managers set up informal relationships with a loosely defined scope all the time; it’s simply not worth reviewing and approving each request that comes along. How informal it is depends on the risk and amount of work. Back when I managed a team my standing guidance was that if any of peers asked for something and I wasn’t there, they were to do it unless it seemed to pose a risk and follow up with me afterward. To me that’s concrete, provide help if asking, assuming that anyone at my level will use some care in what they request. For someone on the team trying to figure out if it’s really ok to reboot a server it’s a whole different thing, now they have to evaluate the risk.

I work on a project right now with no direct reports, but dotted lines to perhaps 10 different teams that will be working on portions of the overall deliverable. Do I have the authority to tell them what to do? No, and yes. I ask, I provide reasons, and they evaluate whether it needs their “real” manager to sign off, or if that manager would just say “yes, of course you should do that”. It’s harder for me too; I can’t rearrange their schedule or priorities. It adds complexity to both sides, and maybe a smidgen of time. Would it work better if I sent every request up to the CIO, then back down through 2 or 3 levels of managers? It would seem safer, but it would be slower, I’d wager a lot slower!

Do you like dotted lines? Or would you prefer the sureness of having all requests vetted by your direct manager? Let’s talk about it!

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