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Effective Project Management in a Weak Matrix Structure
By Bruno Collet

Most of large organizations are structured around functional areas, often called “silos” by analogy with the vertical construction lacking horizontal connections. This structure is usually referred to as functional organization or weak matrix structure. Silos are directed by functional or line managers. In this kind of structure, any initiative that crosses the boundaries of functional silos has to breach these intangible but powerful barriers.

Organizations where projects drive the show and where as a consequence functional areas are subordinate to projects, are called projectized organizations or strong matrix structures.

Picturing a project manager in a weak matrix structure, what comes to mind is the glorified messenger who reports on projects but has little influence over them. More administration, less management, even less action. Not exactly a glamorous role.

Here are a few issues that commonly occur in a weak matrix structure and not so often in projectized organizations.

  • Teams or people contributing to the project change their commitment in terms of capacity or schedule, leaving the project manager to adjust the rest of the project around their decisions.
  • Powerful stakeholders impose wild changes while the rest – usually schedule and budget – remains unmovable. The project manager can only say “yes” and update project plan in order to accommodate the change, however unrealistic.
  • People don’t seem compelled to answer emails, return phone calls, or even attend meetings, leaving the project manager waste his time chasing them.
  • Project members elude responsibility or avoid work but the project manager must keep them on the team.
  • Despite all of the above, the project manager is accountable for the project’s results.

In a weak matrix structure these situations are not uncommon and if the project manager escalates such an issue to management, the latter will usually protect their teams and disregard the project manager’s request. Because let’s face it: in a weak matrix organization the project manager doesn’t have the power to either reward good behavior or discourage bad behavior.

Fortunately there are ways to overcome project management challenges in a weak matrix structure.

Good Relationship with Functional Managers

The relationship between project manager and functional manager in a weak matrix structure can be summarized this way: the project manager brings to the functional manager the opportunity to contribute to business success, in the form of a project where her teams are involved. The functional manager brings the necessary resources to complete the project.

In theory, the power is fairly balanced between project manager and functional manager because they need each other. In practice, there are more projects than resources permit to complete in good conditions, therefore the functional manager has more power than the project manager.

In a weak matrix structure, the functional manager drives resources to complete their tasks. Resource management activities that would normally be the responsibility of the project manager in a projectized organization are transferred to functional managers in a weak matrix structure. For example:

  • Resources are assigned to projects by the functional manager.
  • Resources are often shared among multiple projects and the functional manager sets their priorities.
  • The functional manager provides work items and estimates.
  • The functional manager does performance reviews for their resources.
  • The functional manager approves timesheets.

The project manager strives to obtain and maintain resource commitments in a context where projects compete for the same resources. As a consequence, the project manager is constantly involved in negotiating priorities in which win-win solutions are rare.

The excessive power of functional managers on resources management comes down to asking ourselves: How can the project manager collaborate with the functional manager to keep control over the project and make it successful?

Agreeing on who does what between project manager and functional manager is critical to avoid conflicts that may arise from overlapping responsibilities. The project manager should focus on high-level activities and deliverables and monitor progress. The functional manager, on the other hand, is responsible for translating these high-level objectives into actions that will be performed by her teams.

When dealing with multiple functional managers providing information at various times and in diverse formats, assessing project status and keeping a realistic plan up-to-date is an incredibly challenging task. Setting up flows of information early on will make the project manager’s job considerably easier. For example, agree on a frequency and a format to share information with functional managers. Avoid bringing cumbersome project management artifacts to the table. Instead, use simple communication materials that provide the right level of detail for functional managers.

The project manager should take the lead to establish these rules. It helps keeping control over the project as well as demonstrating his added value. The functional manager will appreciate that the project manager takes the initiative to organize collaboration as long as it’s not done in a directive fashion.

Failure to collaborate with the functional manager will turn the project manager into a headless chicken running constantly to keep up with whatever change or decision occurred. He will become a simple observer in his own project, and his project will suffer as a consequence.

Power by Influence, not by Authority

The project manager has limited authority but instead leads by negotiation to develop resource and task agreements. In other words the project manager does not direct but coordinates activities.

Although most project managers cite lack of authority as the top problem in a weak matrix structure, power by authority is overrated. Real, lasting power comes from influence, which in turn comes from trust. Trust, in turn, depends on proving that (1) the project manager respects stakeholders’ roles and interests, (2) the project manager understands enough of the functional and technical aspects to coordinate activities, and (3) the project manager is genuinely interested in the project’s and in the organization’s success.

Influence works best in most situations, but in crisis or open conflict authority might be needed. In a weak matrix structure, it translates into the infamous “escalation” process. When projects are under pressure, escalation becomes common and the project manager is forced to take a backseat while directors, VP’s and others with formal authority take control.

Reporting is a great influence tool that helps make up for the lack of formal authority. By choosing which (objective) information to show, when, and to whom, the project manager can exert powerful influence. For example, reports and presentations can act as a “wall of fame / wall of shame” for stakeholders and teams. Make issues visible, put a name on them (but avoid finger-pointing), and people will be compelled to solve them.

Situational Awareness

Because resources do not report directly to the project manager, and because it’s not possible to guess where and when important information is communicated, there is no efficient mechanism for the project manager to identify and digest relevant information.

The project manager has to develop deep organizational knowledge to guess who to talk to, which meetings to attend, or which email threads to follow in order to collect the information he needs to manage projects. It’s called situational awareness. In a weak matrix structure, dilution of roles and responsibilities makes over-communication a necessary evil and the project manager stands in its very center.

On the other side, it places the project manager in an ideal position to represent not only the interests of projects but also of the organization. Additionally, situational awareness is invaluable because it tends to be more timely and accurate than formal flows of communication.

Failure to develop situational awareness will force the project manager to manage projects with a subset of the information he needs, potentially overlooking critical elements.

Conclusion

Although the project manager has little formal authority in a weak matrix structure, an effective project manager has considerable power in the form of influence. Compared to other stakeholders, the project manager develops three unique strengths over time. First, he has broader organizational knowledge that any stakeholder taken individually. Second, he has corporate-level credibility because he does not preach for any specific department in particular. Third, he’s the only one specifically mandated to report at project-level. Leveraging these three advantages can make up for most of project management’s shortcomings in a weak matrix structure.

Bruno Collet combines business acumen with technology know-how. His successful track record comprises Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, and Loto-Quebec, with roles such as management consultant, project manager, SAP consultant, and software architect. Bruno Collet’s skills are firmly grounded in academic excellence by achieving an MBA at John Molson School of Business and a Master of Computer Science. He maintains a professional website: brunocollet.com.

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