7463156I’ve been working with some project managers at McGill University in Montreal lately and was involved in a fascinating conversation that I thought I’d share this week.

The definition of a matrix organization is to structure the lines of authority in one aspect by resource grouping or department and in another aspect by project or objective.  Matrix organizations are not universal but are very common in today’s economy as they are ideally suited to organizations which manage multiple projects simultaneously which has become the rule rather than the exception.  In a matrix organization however, the challenge is to determine the actual accountability for results.

We typically charge the resource manager with the responsibility of managing the personnel.  They must ensure their department is fully engaged on productive work but they are also responsible for having their department trained and not to be too large or too small and to ensure that the staff are satisfied, that is to say not to stressed or overworked.

On the other side of the house we typically charge the project manager with producing results.  They must draw upon the skills available in the resource groups to do the project.  They petition the resource manager to staff their project with the best people available and then they must produce the result of the project with those people.

The matrix is often identified as a grid with a hierarchical tree going up and down like an Organigram and a 2nd hierarchical tree going from left to right intersecting the first tree with project responsibility.  The conflict between the interests of the project managers and the resource managers is by design.  In a perfect world, the natural conflict would be managed by a perfect balance between the two groups.

The challenge that I was faced with this week comes from two organizational phenomena that are rarely discussed. 

First, what happens when a person hold both roles as is often common in high tech.  Now you have a resource manager who has a heavy incentive to favor one project (their own) over the others.  How do you manage this conflict?

Secondly, the chain of authority from the resource manager up through the structure of the organization is often clear.  The team lead reports to the supervisor who reports to the department head who reports to the head of the division who reports to the VP etc.  The same is not true for almost any organization when we talk about the project managers.  What is their chain of authority?

I can diagram this easier than I can write about it so bear with me.  If I draw an organigram of an organization, where will the project management office reside?  Almost always, the answer is, as a dotted line next to one of the senior executives.  It is entirely possible that the project manager will hold no direct authority over another human being at all!  They are responsible, held accountable, but hold not authority.  This is the project manager’s most common lament.

In most organizations you also have to deal with the impact of different personalities.  Some people are simply better at getting their way or are more experienced or more skilled.  This can pull the matrix one way or the other.

A movement which is taking on more and more significance in the project management industry has had a direct impact on this area of the business.  The introduction in some organizations of a Chief Project Officer brings for the first time the strength of the project manager into the executive boardroom.  Now, the CPO can represent the potentially powerful project information from a project management office (PMO) at the highest level of the organization.  It’s a relatively new concept but one which holds the promise of a profound change in how organizations structure lines of accountability and chains of authority in making projects work.