How to Manage in a Matrix Structure Part 2: Dealing with the Challenges

In my last post about project management in a matrix structure I shared 4 challenges of that environment. This week I want to talk about how we can overcome these.

This was a topic that Shilpa Arora, PMP, spoke about at a recent Women in Technology event. The 4 challenges she discussed were:

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

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

Lack of authority

In a matrix structure the project manager doesn’t have authority over the team members. How do you deal with this?

“This is about talking to other people about your projects and telling them how important your projects are,” Shilpa said. Substitute authority with influence. “Coffees and lunches are work too if you set them up to be so.”

Build relationships with the people in the extended project team including suppliers and functional heads. ” It’s a lot of hard work,” she added. “Relationships don’t get built overnight.”

Use carrots like compensation and recognition to build influence for you and your project. A lot of project managers feel they can’t offer anything, but you can always try to find something. Try to negotiate overtime, especially for junior staff. Be known for sharing success and saying thanks.

And do favours. What goes around comes around – one day you’ll need a favour done yourself.

Confusion and ambiguity for you and the team

Matrixed environments often result in confusion for the team. Who do they work for? What are their priorities?

Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the project team members. Produce a terms of reference for the Project Board and get workstream leaders to write one for their workstream.

Clarify the paths for conflict resolution so that when something goes wrong (and it will) you know who to escalate to.

Invest time in stakeholder management as this will also help remove ambiguity. The more you know your stakeholders, the more you’ll be able to engage with them in ways that help them understand.

“Often as project managers we focus on issues,” Shilpa said. She said that we should invest time in project publicity and talk up our milestones. “Make sure that the last thing they remember is something you’ve achieved.”

Feeling out of control

Feel like it is all falling apart? Project managers in matrixed organisations can feel like they don’t have a handle on what is going on. You can deal with that.

First, appear confident, even if you aren’t. You can learn to control your nerves – I do it all the time when I’m speaking in public. I get very nervous but people tell me it doesn’t show (even when I fell off the stage).

“It doesn’t matter how difficult the problem is that you’re facing,” Shilpa said, “if you look out of control the team will as well.”

Second, talk. You do need the opportunity to vent in a safe environment. Get a coach or mentor, or talk to a trusted colleague. Preferably someone who understands your work situation, but not someone who works on the same project.

Third, ruthlessly prioritise. “Is the world going to stop if I don’t do this?” Shilpa asked. Only do what you absolutely have to until you are back on your feet.

Time pressures

Matrixed or not, projects are always under pressure to get things done in time. It can be worse in a matrix structure because of competing priorities and needing to hit deadlines with little management support. Here are some tips to cope.

We are good at challenging other people’s estimates, but pretty poor at doing that to our own. “If you tend to be ambitious and you know it,” Shilpa said, “add 10%.”

Ask for help. Shilpa talked about getting a secondee or a graduate student on the project, or an MBA student looking for a work placement for their dissertation. I think that there are overheads with this that might not help you in the short term, but it could be a strategy for some projects, especially if you have a chunk of work you could easily parcel up for someone.

All these strategies will help you manage in environments where a matrix structure is in place. The important thing is to not let the work situation get to you, regardless of how alien it feels.

“If project management feels hard in matrix organisations, it’s because it is,” Shilpa said. “Give yourself some credit.”

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