How to Manage in a Matrix Structure Part 1: Understanding the Matrix

Most projects operate in some kind of matrixed environment. Project managers rarely have direct line management responsibility for all, if any, of the people on the project team. So how can we best get things done when we don’t control the team?

In this article, I’ll explain what matrix management is and why it creates problems for project managers. I’ll also explain why it’s so great.

What is a matrix?

“A matrix is a type of organisational management where people of similar skills are pooled together for work assignments,” said Shilpa Arora, PMP, at a recent Women In Technology event. “There is no form of formal authority. You’re not doing compensation, or annual reviews but in the project structure the people are important to you.”

Taking resources from the matrix
Taking resources from the matrix for a project team

Advantages of a matrix structure

Shilpa explained some of the benefits of working in a matrix structure.

  • There is no burden on you to do line management tasks like pay reviews.
  • There is a clear emphasis on the project’s objectives.
  • You have a clear remit and so do the team members.
  • Your authority over the project is clear.
  • You can get the right people, not just the people who work directly for you, so the project is (should be) staffed by the best team.
  • There is more debate and challenge which helps make good decisions.
  • There is a better chance of seeing across the organisation and understanding the wider project implications.

Disadvantages of a matrix structure

There are some down-sides to working in a matrix.

  • There is the risk of confusion for the team with a dual reporting structure, working at the same time for their line manager and also for you.
  • Professional development is not given a priority due to time constraints of the project, so team members forgo opportunities to develop and improve.
  • There is a longer lead time for decision making as there are more people involved in the process.
  • There are higher management overheads due to a more complex resource structure.

In an organisation that is structured around project teams reporting directly to the project manager, projects can become little enclaves. There is no incentive to finish the work as that makes the whole team vulnerable to redundancy or dissolution.

“You create a lot of fiefdoms in a projectised organisation,” Shilpa said. “In matrixed organisations, you finish the project, it’s very visible. They go back to their functional pools and wait for the next project. That’s one of the reasons why senior managers love matrix structures.”

Challenges for the project manager

Matrix structures are beneficial to projects, but they are not without their challenges. Major challenges of working in a matrix include:

  • Lack of authority
  • Confusion and ambiguity for you and the team
  • Feeling out of control
  • Time pressures

Next time I’ll discuss how we can address these. In the meantime, what pros and cons do you see with working in a matrixed environment? Share your thoughts in the comments!