Succeeding in a Weak Matrix Organization

November 3, 2010

Before I started attending the IEM program at UAB, I never really had any exposure to project management practices. Sure, I had worked on projects before, but not all of them were successful. Some projects were shelved when team members were pulled away to work on higher priority projects, and some were in a perpetual state of waiting for someone to finish a task. On the first week of my project management class I learned that I work in a weak matrix organization. From that point on, I asked myself, “How can I overcome the problems that I face and succeed in a weak matrix organization?”

Defining a Weak Matrix Organization

First, let’s review the organizational structure known as a weak matrix. Employees are organized into functional teams that report to Functional Managers. The employees are dedicated resources under the Functional Manager and they often have their own roles and responsibilities within their functional team/department. Whenever a project is initiated, the Functional Managers select a Project Coordinator and a project team from the pool of employees. The Project Coordinator isn’t a dedicated Project Manager, they don’t interview or select the project team members, and they don’t have any authority.

The Source of the Pain

The most noted problems encountered by Project Coordinators in a weak matrix center around resources (staff) and here’s why:

1. Resources are usually assigned to a project on a part-time basis while retaining some (if not all) of their regular duties.

2. Resources report and remain loyal to a Functional Manager.

3. Project Coordinators have no influence over factors that motivate or control resources. Such as:

a. Performance Reviews

b. Disciplinary Action

c. Workload Management

d. Task Prioritization

e. Time Off

4. Additionally, Project Coordinators must rely on Functional Managers to provide visibility into resource factors that can affect the project schedule and budget. [2]

As you look at the list above it should be easy to see how project resources may be subject to competing priorities, scheduling conflicts, workload issues, and several other factors that may affect their performance, all of which the Project Coordinator has no control over. “Since the Project Coordinator has no actual authority on the project, the only thing truly in his power in the case of a failing project is to report the negative results to a Functional Manager. The Project Coordinator hopes that the Functional Manager will straighten out and refocus the employees on the project, but this doesn’t always happen” [1]

Overcoming the Lack of Control

According to project management blogger Michael Flanagan, a Project Coordinator shouldn’t try to control it. The best way to deal with resource management is to “shift responsibility back to the resource managers, since they have the control. Embrace the weak matrix organization. Become more of an administrator and coordinator than a manager” [3]. In his blog, Flanagan’s not suggesting that we should shift the blame, but rather that we need to let managers be managers while we focus on overseeing the project and working with Functional Managers to complete their tasks.

Flanagan’s suggestion to just “let go” sounded so simple (and scary) that I decided to do some more searching to see if I could find any success stories when the “Project Manager” acted more like a coordinator/administrator. Of all the places I never expected to find a weak matrix in use, NASA was definitely at the top of my list. But in the Summer 2008 edition of NASA’s Ask Magazine, Keith L Woodman detailed the secret to their success in a weak matrix environment. In the article, Woodman said, “Successfully leading a weak matrix project calls for situational awareness, negotiation skills, technical assignments, and influence” [4]. After going into an explanation of the previously mentioned attributes, Woodman says that everything boils down to influence. “Influence means that you can make things happen, without actually being in control. Understanding this difference and striving to build influence as opposed to taking control will help the center focal (Project Coordinator) excel” [4].

Making it Work

To summarize, in a weak matrix environment a Project Coordinator lacks the power to control resources and they shouldn’t attempt to do so. Instead of fighting for control, you should let the Functional Managers manage the resources. Doing so makes Functional Managers responsible for managing the priorities, workload, and progress of resources. In other words, the Functional Managers have some skin in the game so they should be more motivated and willing to coordinate on the project. The role of the Project Coordinator then shifts to overseeing the project and communicating with the teams. So the more that the Project Coordinator communicates, negotiates, and understands, the more influence he/she may gain in order to make things happen without being in control.

– Sean Maher

[1] Russell, Daiv. Weak Matrix Organization Structure – Advantages and Disadvantages. 25 February 2008. <http://www.articlesbase.com/project-management-articles/weak-matrix-organization-structure-advantages-and-disadvantages-341491.html>

[2] Flanagan, Michael. Roles and responsibilities in a weak matrix organization . 17 March 2007. <http://mlflanagan.blogspot.com/2007/03/roles-and-responsibilities-in-weak.html>

[3] Flanagan, Michael Weak Matrix Organizations (Part 2). 27 January 2007. <http://mlflanagan.blogspot.com/2007/01/weak-matrix-organizations-part-2.html>

[4] Woodman, Keith L. "Nothing Weak About It: Thriving in a Weak-Matrix Project Environment." Ask Magazine 31 (2008): 47-49.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Succeeding in a Weak Matrix Organization”

  1. Paul McGuire said

    Good article! I too work in a weak matrix organization and like the concept of the PM’s actually being more like Project Coordinators. I will say that as a functional manager in my organization that project managers/coordinators need to solicit much, much input from the functional managers, especially during the planning phase. Timescales will be driven by the availability of the resources (people) reporting to the functional manager, so to drive the risk of schedule slippage as low as possible it is imperative to involve the functional managers as much as possible. They can be your biggest asset or your biggest detractor. And, as with all communication, your approach to the functional manager is critical to creating a solid partnership. Spend some time getting to know the functional managers in your organization and you’ll be well on your way to successful project management. This article opened my eyes a little more to the overall dynamics of my own organization. Well done!

  2. Phil Stilber said

    A weak matrix organization can definitely be a hard place to work as a project manager, but it is possible. I’ve found that a weak matrix organization calls for even more technical competence on the part of the project manager. If you don’t know what you are doing it can be hard to get functional managers to work with you.

    Nice posting!

  3. Megha Goel said

    I am totally with the author on this subject. I have faced these issues myself working as a project coordinator for multiple projects simultaneously. After striving for some time to control the project tasks, I realized that this is not the way to go for a project coordinator and it doesn’t work especially in difficult projects. I learned that providing exact status, whether its positive or negative, to project manager is the key to success.

  4. Mike Gann said

    I’m employed in a matrix organization where contention for resources is always good entertainment on Tuesdays/Thursdays. Everyone meets in a glass-walled conference room, and it’s like an aggressive tennis match watching the resource coordinator go back and forth with the managers in the room. I do not envy the resource coordinator.

    In my case, I have three bosses that oftentimes have competing agendas for my time. I have to say that most of the time it’s up to me to negotiate between them and come up with a solution that’s agreeable to all three. That really comes from the way my group is positioned within our company as most other engineers don’t have as much of a problem with it.

    I like the NASA comment as it was surprising to find out that’s the paradigm they adopt internally. I have to say, though, that influence as mentioned here can also work against the resources in question. Many times, the most influential of my three bosses wins out over the other two despite the fact that there’s a far more critical issue at hand elsewhere. It’s up to me to come up with a way to satisfy Mr. Influence and take care of the more important issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: