A Difficult Task: Managing Teams in Matrix Organizations

In today’s global economy, the ever-present need for flexibility has caused a number of firms to adopt a matrix approach to organizational structure. For the uninitiated, while employees in a matrix organization report to a functional structure (e.g. division, group, etc.), their day-to-day responsibilities track to a distinct, multifaceted structure (e.g. a project, client, etc.). The theory behind such a matrix model is that it breaks down barriers, fostering a culture of adaptability and efficiency. In such an environment, projects can flourish with autonomy, with the support of the functional structure.

While proponents and opponents continue to debate the effectiveness of a matrix structure, the project manager (PM) is often caught in the crossfire. How can the PM oversee a project when resources effectively have two supervisors?

  1. A functional supervisor in charge of goals, evaluations, and career progression (downward leadership)
  2. A tactical supervisor in charge of day-to-day responsibilities (sideways leadership

A Difficult Task: Managing Teams in Matrix Organizations image matrix orgA Difficult Task: Managing Teams in Matrix Organizations

Managing a project can certainly be complex in-and-of-itself, however, in a matrix organization, the process can be complicated further if the functional and project managers have differing (or even opposing) priorities. Additionally, when other projects are thrown into the mix, the process becomes even more convoluted.

A Difficult Task: Managing Teams in Matrix Organizations image matrix org 2A Difficult Task: Managing Teams in Matrix Organizations

In these complex scenarios, the PM must self-advocate for the project to not only survive, but to thrive. While the semantics of such a project-based promotion will vary across organizations, there are key steps to help ensure success.

1. Stay organized – The key to the successful management of any project is to stay organized. Depending on the nature of the organization, a PM may even be asked to manage multiple projects concurrently. To help maintain discipline in such cases, three project artifacts are recommended:

  • A Project Plan – The methodical, step-by-step guide to project completion. Though the level of detail may vary, a valuable plan will have accurate timelines, tasks, and resources.
  • A Staffing Plan – A map of the resources involved in the project, including estimated timelines and work.
  • A Project-based Organizational Chart – An organizational chart that treats a project as if it were a Functional Division within an organization. The chart can call out roles and responsibilities in a less formal context than a RACI chart.

2. Track progress and deliverables – Regardless of the number of concurrent projects, a successful PM will track a project’s progress, noting when deadlines are met and when deadlines are in jeopardy. Deadlines in flux should be communicated immediately, preventing key stakeholders and resources from being surprised by upcoming struggles.

3. Don’t hide behind the plan – A common criticism of the project management discipline is that once a PM creates a plan, they tend to stick to it regardless of reality. While an initial plan can help set benchmarks, a PM should not be shy about modifying the tasks and timelines to reflect reality (such changes should certainly be communicated to the team). To be successful, a PM should manage in front of the plan, anticipating challenges, motivating team members in times of stress and lauding team members in times of success.

4. Advocate – Despite our best efforts, every project cannot be deemed a success. To compound this, PM’s can feel powerless in organizations, shouldered with the mantra of full responsibility without the authority to steer the ship. Regardless of organizational culture, PMs are their own best resources. They need to advocate for the right resources at the right times. Well these requests may fall on deaf ears; the PM should maintain diligence and clear communication of the impact on deliverables. Additionally, a little creativity and diplomacy never hurts when it comes to garnering resources for a project.

5. Communicate – Perhaps the most important key to managing projects within matrix organizations is to communicate (and even over-communicate if needed). Resources, functional managers, other project managers, and supervisors should all be kept up-to-date on needs, wants, and timelines. While the communication may not always lead to the desired results, at least key stakeholders are informed so they can intervene if needed to help support a project through its duration.

Whether or not in a matrix or more traditional organization structure, it goes without saying that managing projects can be challenging. Though the daily stresses may increase, success can be achieved. It just takes diligence, method, and enthusiasm to lead a team through the finish line. So seasoned PMs, what other advice can you pass along to the next project reach a win?

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