…Project Management in a Matrix Environment
Unfortunately, no one can be…told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you already took the red pill.
After working a project with a very unique organizational structure , I was motivated to write about the challenges encountered from the perspective of whether being in a matrix structure either magnified or helped resolve them. Some of these challenges were of the standard garden variety. Others were… well, let’s say more unique. In either case, success on this project required a lot of creative thinking in order to effectively manage through the minefield a layered matrix type project structure can create. I suspect these challenges are more common than many would think. In fact, matrix organizations, weak, strong and in-between have become very popular due to the purported efficiencies they bring to an organization. I believe many of us deal with these challenges regularly and often succeed because we are good managers. Since we’re such good managers, we naturally turn our thoughts to lessons learned and preventive measures. Perhaps the perceived value of the matrix needs to be re-examined – or at least the pros and cons compared before diving headlong into an organizational change.
As is typical in the world of government contracting, this unique project had several layers of management entities. Fortunately, there were only four in this case.
Layer 1: The agency which was to use the solution was the ultimate customer. They provided a CRM as a point of contact representing the procuring sponsor, a Project “Owner” who led a group of subject matter experts, and several SMEs.
Layer 2: The agency assigned mangers from the functional groups who were to be the end users of the system. They served as SMEs and process approvers.
Layer 3: Being a government project, there was a primary contracted IT organization which provided a Technical PM, some Business Analysts and IT support resources.
Layer 4: The contracted organization in layer 3 had no specific product knowledge going into the project. They sub-contracted the product infrastructure, development, interfaces and general project management to my organization with the caveat that there would be ongoing knowledge transfer.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around the project layers you can imagine the myriad political and interpersonal challenges in creating a single team environment from this mix. Although it is tempting to write about these in detail, I will stay focused on the challenges presented specifically by the marriage of the two contracted matrix organizations – namely layers 3 and 4. Most project managers will realize they have seen this type of scenario in their own careers, perhaps as variations on a theme.
In this case, the primary contractor had a rotating door of project managers which came and went. The most skilled and team-centric PM resigned mid-project. While this was a disappointment and a blow to the project, it was in fact an opportunity to find out why so many skilled managers were unwilling to continue working in this particular setting?
To paraphrase, if not quote her main reason: The matrix organization did not provide the PM with adequate authority to settle disputes and act on performance issues effectively. There was also a bit of discussion explaining how this scenario leads to a highly politicized culture.
I had to consider that I myself was working as part of a matrix type organization. I was familiar with the same challenges, but having accepted the client’s matrix structure as an unchangeable constant, I had accepted it’s realities and adapted- regardless of how unpleasant it was at times. Hey, some projects are just more fun than others, right? Well, perhaps not so much.
A recent Email from Danielle Smallwood of TenStep.com on this topic impelled me to write this post. In her article the primary concern is described as the frustration of being a project manager in a matrix structured organization. Danielle writes:
“….it can be difficult to manage the project when you have no formal management authority over the members of your team. From an organizational perspective, if the people do not report to you as a functional manager, then you are probably operating in some type of matrix structure.”
“The matrix makes the most efficient use of people resources, but it can also be very challenging on the part of project managers.” One could interpret this to mean that [matrix organization = no fun for PMs].
I would respectfully argue it would be more correct to say that there are a variety of matrix models an organization can build on. The most significant means of characterization describes a matrix as being either “weak” or “strong”- which is directly from the PMI PMBOK. In a strong matrix, the project manager is empowered to a greater degree as compared to a weak matrix, wherein the project manager has less authority over resource selection and individual performance. In a strong matrix the project manager may participate in staffing decisions, responses to performance issues with policing powers and can provide direction to team leaders. In a weak matrix, the project manager tends to be more of a meeting representative, planner and metrics reporter who has to live with the decisions of the vertical team leaders – often developing the fine skills needed to repeatedly justify decisions made by others to the customer.
I believe Ms. Smallwood’s piece refers to project managers in weak matrix settings. I wholeheartedly agree that a matrix can be effectively employed to make the most efficient use of people resources and skillsets, however this is not a given. Why?
To answer this question, consider that project managers take all shapes and sizes – some are very experienced and may have strong soft-skills. Others are less experienced or may be more in tune with their metrics and reports. some are very active in managing client relationships and expectations. There is also great variety of technical ability and understanding among project managers – some being able to make effective, objective resource and performance judgments using their own observations and knowledge. How does this variety affect the big picture? In a weak matrix, even the most skilled project manager is handcuffed by the limited authority. In an organization which is in it’s early years of establishing it’s PMO for the first time, it’s top leaders may be accustomed to making all the decisions themselves. The weak matrix allows this to a large degree. Likewise, if an organization has not been able to engage experienced, mature project managers, the weak matrix is well suited…as long as there is an umbrella of good PM supervision – or program management to oversee a not so empowered junior PM staff.
A fully engaged progression of leadership is needed in either case.
In reality, mid and low level managers of skill-centric verticals (a.k.a. team leaders) often obtain their position due to their superior technical and process acumen, however many have neither formal training nor skills in managing people and complex stakeholder relationships. This should not be overlooked, whereas the people – the team members reporting to them are the most significant resources on any project – and as such, must be managed with the greatest amount of skill and care. Allowing them to be led by mostly untrained team leaders will not do them justice. One could speculate that this may be a key factor in high turnover organizations. People tend to not complain about their immediate boss-they more often seek employment elsewhere. It’s no way to build an organization with staying power.
The single greatest project risk arising from this scenario is that the team leader – the functional manager of each vertical- may treat their sub-team as “the” team, rather than as a group contributor to the greater project team. This introduces a multiplicity of goal sets which are not included in any of the formal project planning – they swim beneath the surface, out of sight of the project management team. If permitted, functional team leaders will often manage to these hidden goals as their first priority which often leaves the actual project goals the PM is attempting to monitor and control flapping in the ever-changing breeze.
Misalignment between these sub-teams and the greater project is a major risk which nearly every matrix organization brings to all it’s projects.
In the greater scheme of things, roll this scenario upward, and consider how challenging the management of shared resource sub-teams can be within a program or portfolio of projects and programs. Who are these teams? Consider the ERP or DBA groups, perhaps others who maintain specific neighboring solutions or platforms and their interfaces – these and others all fit here. These are the teams you must work with, and whose tasks may need to fit into a critical chain on your project plan. If they each have their own informal plan and goal set, you’ll be fortunate to fit them into a critical chain -which of course will stretch your timeline and budget.
What may be going on within the shared or special team environment?
A low or mid-level manager in charge of one of these functional verticals may default to their comfort zone, where familiarity and a career background of performance reward environments will often have them drive their sub-team to perform in a narrow task focus. If it’s in process, it’s in focus. Everything else, including a behind schedule task the PM is attempting to promote remains secondary. Even the thorn in a main stakeholder’s side will not get elevated priority.
We expect the functional group to willingly share resources, however this is often a mistaken perception. Anyone who has worked in a PMO that includes this shared services principle knows what I’m talking about. Even highly skilled people like to stay in their comfort zones and only a small percentage really handles multi-tasking well. Resources in Shared Services teams need to know they are effectively “Shared Resources” and that they will support multiple projects on any given day or week. You’ll know this isn’t communicated clearly by leadership when people in lead roles tell you that they can’t support your need – because their team is already busy working on something else. They should really be looking to you to set priorities. If you recognize the scenario and are thinking “Hey, that sounds like us…” yes, your organization may be a weak matrix and you really need to keep reading.
Perhaps the most obvious PM challenge in a matrix structure is establishing and maintaining accountability. I say establishing first, because team members who are accustomed to the matrix have already adapted to an environment where accountability has become largely absent. Let’s be honest about this – political correctness in the workplace has grown beyond reason. We empathize with low performers and reward people for being honest when they explain their inability. We grow the team to cover the weaknesses, rather than insisting on acceptable levels of performance.
The team leader usually has an arrangement with each of their sub-team members – something like “As long as you do this, I’ll protect you from that…”. This leaves the PM with a channel to the team leader, who invariably will respond to any challenge by citing their formal authority to manage their own team without the PM’s interference. These conversations can get ugly, as a result they are often just avoided – adding to the frustration.
In response to the question of how to hold team members accountable without this authority, Smallwood replies:
“If team members are missing their deadlines you must first try to determine the cause. For example, if it is due to a lack of skills, this should be addressed through training or replacement resources. If it is because they do not fully understand the expectations you have, then you may have some changes to make as well.”
In the weak matrix structure, the PM’s authority to retrain or replace resources can be limited to making recommendations. This is another set of cases where the sub-team’s leader can block the PM’s effort to manage effectively. The thought that you, as a project manager may have some changes to make ( I add: unless you formally established expectations and realities early on) is dead on the mark.
The primary expectation you can, and must set is regarding communication. You should already have a communication plan in place, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. To manage properly, you need good, timely, unfiltered information. As PM, you absolutely must maintain open communications with all team members at every level and to expect truthful information from each in return. You will, of course, need good soft skills to get people to open up during a conflict or controversy. Since these are the times when good information is most vital, to succeed in a matrix environment a PM needs to excel in this area. Everyone on your greater team must know that honest and open formal and informal dialog is expectation number one.
I also mentioned the need to communicate realities. Given facts. Eye openers. Big-picture contexts. These are the things that let the project team know the ground rules, as well as potential and probable effects of their actions or lack thereof – simply stated – make sure everyone knows the reasons behind the ground rules.
Don’t try to bend the spoon. There is no spoon.
Interestingly, these are fairly common project success factors. Sharing expectations, communicating openly, accountability, clearly set roles and responsibilities, and I’ll add leadership engagement and consistency. Unfortunately the degree to which a project manager can implement or enforce these proven principles in a solid, real way may not be a reality – like the spoon. You’ll need to use your mind to figure out how to build these, and other necessary success factors into your personal management style if you are to succeed in the matrix. There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. We’ll pick up here in part III.