Project Management in the Matrix Crossfire

Many businesses have adopted a Project/Functional matrix management organizational model as a way of ensuring enterprise focus on both the near-term execution and long-term process capability. Matrix organization theory says that Functional Managers are responsible for building, deploying and supporting the people, process and tool resources required to execute the business projects, while Project Managers are responsible for planning, directing, monitoring and controlling those resources during project execution. The theory seems fairly straight forward.   So why then, do we continue to see confusion, conflict, and dysfunctional behavior in the implementation of matrix management organizational models? I believe that the reason that matrix management cross-fire has wounded so many businesses, is that they’ve failed to properly address relationship management. In implementing matrix management they may have thought about the macro, or organizational level of relationship management, but they’ve forgotten about the micro or person to person relationship management aspects. Successful implementation of matrix management at the organization level is in fact, the integration of the many successful relationships between the people that make up our organizational systems. Our businesses are fueled by knowledge interactions between people, and trust is the enabler of effective interactions.
One of the most important and lasting things I learned during my more than three decades in field of project management is the criticality of relationship management. I was educated as an Aerospace Engineer, but knowing what I know now, I wished I’d also taken a minor in psychology. A better understanding how people (including myself) think and why they behave the way they do, would have significantly shortened and smoothed my career learning curve. I’ve concluded that Project Management is at least 60% about managing relationships…with customers, management, team members, and peers. The ability to sense their needs and pain, integrate that with your needs and pain, and then act appropriately (Emotional or Social Intelligence), is a skill that will serve you at least as well, perhaps even better, than an advanced degree or a professional certification.
I have several objectives in this blog. One is to help my fellow Project Managers understand the importance of relationship management skills in doing their jobs and, to offer a couple of practical ideas for improving their ability to perform in a matrix organization context. In addition, these ideas are equally relevant to Functional Managers, who are of course, connected to projects through their people. So I hope they may find some value as well. Finally, I can’t forget those who are caught in heaviest of the matrix cross-fire…the people who are deployed from the Functional organizations to the Project Teams. You’re the ones with two bosses (sometimes more).  You have to find a way to make them all happy, keep your career on track and maintain your sanity. You can’t be passive victims in this matrix environment. You have an active and important role in the success of the matrix by facilitating the flow of information between your two bosses. In fact you may be able to make the matrix work, even if one or both of your bosses don’t get it.
So here is my advice for Project Managers to be successful in a matrix organization environment:
• Know and care about your matrix counterparts. I’ve seen matrix organizations in which the Project Manager didn’t even know all of their Functional Manager counterparts. Sure they knew the ones they already had conflicts with, or at least they knew their names, but by then it was too late to build a trusting relationship. Take the time to make a list of all of your Functional Management counterparts and go meet with them before the inevitable crisis occurs. Match faces with names. Learn a little bit about them and their challenges. Communicate your project objectives and give them a context for their functional contributions. Talk to them about the people they’ve shared with your team and how important they are to you and the success of the team. Share your ideas and aspirations and ask about theirs. This may not be easy for you. Building a relationship requires you to open up, to make yourself vulnerable, but that’s what builds trust and trust is the necessary condition for real communication and for resolving problems in the future.
• Maintain communications with your counterparts. Information and knowledge flow through the matrix is the fuel that drives the business engine, and trust built on carefully tended relationships is the lubricant of the business engine. But this isn’t just keeping the Functional Manager informed of your changing needs and priorities on a recurring basis, it’s also asking about, and staying up to date on changes in their world. In this regard, deployed Functional people have an important role to play. They’re an important information conduit for both their Functional Manager and their matrix Project Manager, and they must understand and own that as a job performance expectation.
• Provide on-going employee performance feedback. Functional Managers are responsible for evaluating and developing the people assigned to the project teams, and if those project teams are remotely located, it’s going to make the job difficult. Project Managers in a matrix must carve out enough time out of a seemingly swamped schedule to provide meaningful performance feedback to both the team member and their Functional Manager. This care and consideration is not only an important ingredient in the relationship with all of the matrix parties, it’s also an investment in the future of the business.
Project Managers are accoubtable for the health of the matrix. The success of the matrix is vital to the success of your project, so if you are accountable for your project, then you must also be accountable for the health of the matrix relationships that support the project.  Your job performance objectives and assements must address the degree to which you built and leveraged your matrix relationships.

It’s unlikely that you will escape the matrix management crossfire unwounded.  But if you pay attention to, and build, trusting relationships with your counterparts you will not only survive the battle, you’ll make everyone involved a winner.

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About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
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2 Responses to Project Management in the Matrix Crossfire

  1. Great blog. Matrixed organizations often get confused based on how employees are rewarded. If they are rewarded for program success first and functional metrics second, programs tend to run more smoothly. If they are rewarded for functional metrics first, the programs suffer. Also, program teams desperately want to be led. Being a good leader involves managing the relationships, as you discussed in your blog. Too often, program managers are book smart and know how to make confusing timelines, but have no earthly idea how to interact with people. They think they are leading but if they turned around and saw that nobody was following they would realizing that they aren’t really leading – they’re just taking a walk.

  2. John Oliver says:

    I completely agree with Tony. Maybe the job title “Program Manager” is an issue. Program Team Leader would work better for me. That leadership becomes one of a cross functional process the team can actually follow because they can see how their contribution supports the Program at large rather than selfish pursuit of what is “best” for their department.

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