Social Networks : Project Management and The Matrix

Charles Albano founded Adaptive Leadership in 1993 after retiring from a full civilian career with the US Army.

During his government service he served as Director of the Army's Northeast US Regional Training Center responsible for developing Federal executives in an eleven state region. He was Chairman of the Management Development Department at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, responsible for the design and conduct of in-house supervisor and manager development courses. Afterwards he served as Chief of the Organizational Consulting Office of the US Army Communications - Electronics Command.

During his career with the US Army developing managers and conducting internal organization development (OD) consulting, he introduced innovative programs in quality circles, productivity management, corporate values, participate management, leadership development, and creativity enhancement.

He has been teaching part-time in MBA programs for various universities for over fifteen years.


As I said in my previous article on this subject, the Matrix organizational structure is complex in and of itself. It has been argued that its very complexity makes for a greater degree of flexibility and adaptiveness than that afforded by the more traditional 'Functional' and 'Product' structures. Complexity has been viewed as the price paid to reap valued benefits

  • better, smoother integration
  • more efficient use of human resource
  • improved horizontal communications
  • reduced territorial conflict
  • better overall quality and responsiveness
  • improved decision making

To the degree these benefits may be realized, it is certainly a good trade off. But I have come to believe that the benefits possible from the adoption of a matrix structure are contingent on a foundation of a fit and healthy culture.

Speaking as a former organization development consultant in large military settings, it was my experience that the matrix greatly heightened the inter-office strains that existed under the older structures. At the same time it introduced new elements in those weakly bonded organizational cultures, that lent themselves to "gamey" behavior.

Many of the people I dealt with who manned those structures confided to me the difficulties they faced in sustaining mutual cooperation. And they complained about the ambiguities that marked responsibilities and accountabilities. Yet it must be said they had come to believe that owing to the growing number of complex projects, the matrix they railed against would have had to be invented anyway. So it seems that, difficulties notwithstanding, the adoption of the matrix structure at that time was viewed as necessary to handle the large scale engineering projects their organizations were responsible for.

Weak Cultures

The logic for creating the matrix organization and the nature of its benefits have already been addressed. In this article I will discuss the cultural underside of the matrix under less than ideal cultural conditions. This underside is where a whole range of "gamey," counter-productive behavior patterns can be observed. These "gamey" behaviors plague organizations with "weak" organizational cultures.

By "weak" I refer to organizations lacking an unselfishly cooperative ethic. These are organizations whose expressed values do not jibe with their actual behaviors; organizations whose internal histories are consequently replete with examples of turf guarding, shunting of responsibility, 'political' coalitions and in-fighting

I have found that where cooperative, mutually supportive values are shared by Project and Functional managers, appropriate actions are reflected in the conduct of their working level employees as well.

In subsequent organizational change encounters spanning about five years, I, along with others, worked hard to change these things. Through many organization-wide surveys, sensing sessions, planning sessions, ‘town halls’, and inter-organizational workshops these organizations markedly improved their operational effectiveness and operating climates. Happily my conviction remains today that there is always hope. With that, let us explore some overlooked, darker features of matrix culture.

The Darker Side

What follows is a summary sketch of the structural and cultural downsides of matriced relationships. It is an outgrowth of my organization development (OD) consulting experiences. It draws on a great many group interviews and workshop observations. It encompasses the (remarkably consistent) views of both managerial and non-managerial personnel within those matrix organizations.

A note of caution is in order. In this presentation I am explicating views of the "gamey" nature of relationships inside the matrix. I have intentionally made that my purpose because I feel it has been under-represented in the literature at large. I will start with some overall observations.

Internal Preoccupation

  • Matrix  organizations become over-occupied with work processes and cross-organizational relationships. They become addicted to these focuses. It is not that these matters don't warrant attention. Of course they do. Quality management, work process improvement, and so on, have made and do make valuable contributions. But unless the underlying culture is genuinely supportive in nature and not internally competitive, these efforts themselves can be crippling.
  • The matrix structure lends itself well to buck-passing because work accomplishment is interdependent.
  • Communication, role clarification. relationship building, and process enhancement are costly and time consuming endeavors. Matrix structures require a large and continuing maintenance investment akin to a ceaseless internal process focus that some writers have labelled "navel gazing."
  • The major players, e.g. Project Managers, and Functional Office Managers lack a (shared) sense of urgency. What is more, they lack a common reward system. Even their task and time orientation is naturally different.

These realities necessitate careful attention from high level executives. Where that does not occur, things are likely to fall into chaos. This observation applies particularly when the major players don't report to the same general manager.

  • Major decisions involving "irreconcilable differences" tend to pile up at very high organizational levels. Conflict is high in matrix organizations.
  • Organizational effectiveness is highly dependant on players keeping their word to one another. Where they do not, a great deal of time must be invested by top management and special staff sorting things out.
  • The matrix is intended to be adaptive, but its operations are often slow, and its decisions can be fickle in practice.

Two Sides of the Fence

The expatriates are the individual professional and technical workers who are loaned out from their Functional home offices to serve on-site (resident) under the direction of  Project Management Offices. In some matrix organizations, due to the workload, some individuals will be tasked with serving more than one project office.  They are dedicated full time to the work of the project for an indefinite time. Their technical support is rated by the project manager usually in consultation with the functional office chief.  What's in it for them?

  • High visibility work
  • More travel opportunities
  • A faster work pace
  • A more tangible sense of contribution an accomplishment
  • Heightened prestige and a feeling of being special
  • Closeness to the action
  • A deeper sense of a project's rhythms and life cycle
  • Challenge
  • A chance to be resourceful and feel needed
  • Closer contact with customers and end users
  • Greater autonomy - out from under a functional boss.

These are potent attractors for persons with entrepreneurial leanings.

The homebodies are the personnel who for one reason or another remain physically present in their Functional Offices and generally do "core" functional work that may or may not be devoted to any single project office.  What they gain from staying put:

  • Career safety
  • Greater proximity to advancement opportunities that arise in the functional office itself - in sight means in mind
  • Regularity of routine and more predictable workload
  • Familiar surroundings and work processes
  • Less disruption of personal life
  • Deeper backup in the event they need to be absent from the office
  • More abundant opportunities for career development, mentoring, and training

Expatriate Dilemmas

Extended stays - Assignments are not always short. In fact, major projects may require their full time presence for many months.

The tempo of work - Not everyone can function effectively as an expatriate in a Project Management Office. The tempo of work is very fast at times, and the costs of error run high. The workload grows heavy when the project reaches that stage in the life cycle when the specialist's particular skills become most relevant. For expatriates the setting can be doubly stressful by virtue of coming to feel they out there on a limb away from the Functional office. Out of sight really is out of mind. Ties can weaken over time, and with them the network advantages they used to confer.

Dual Loyalty - Another factor of central importance is dual loyalty. This is well rrecognized in the literature. Anyone who has ever served two bosses simultaneously knows how difficult it is to satisfy both. Stress is generated by virtue of the fact that pleasing one might just offend the other. This is readily apparent in an organization suffering from a weak corporate culture.

Stress and Strain - Both the Project Manager and the Functional Manager work their influence upon the expatriate at all times. All too often competing expectations induce significant levels of stress. Such stress has a cumulative effect. Project Managers are under the gun to produce results from the human resources they do not "own." They beg, borrow, and "steal" to complete their missions. Many of them are "Type A," aggressive, task-oriented personalities. They like to win, and they fight hard against, around, or through obstacles. They are bottom-line oriented, ever mindful of goals, deadlines, milestones, and accomplishments.

Mild mannered functionals may find themselves put off by their demeanor and demands. Bringing projects in on time, within budget, and at requisite levels of quality are all important to them and are central to achieving their aspirations for advancement into the ranks of executive leadership. Expatriates soon learn that Project Managers can be very demanding and that they expect, when push comes to shove, priority attention and total commitment to their projects.

The Loyalty Factor - Perceptions of loyalty become prominent every time the expatriate is called upon to take a course of action that may stray from the better judgment of his Functional superior. And whenever expatriates render divergent advice to the Project Manager or members of the Project Manager's core (permanent) staff, they can be sure a note is made of it.

Imagine cases in which the duo that comprises the expatriate's management dislike each other, and/or pursue rival ways of operating. Imagine how hard it is for the expatriate when the titans clash over high stake matters and the center is hard to find. This is common fare. That is why those serving as expatriates require strong interpersonal skills and need to know how to manage stress.

Appraisals and Rewards - In Matrix organizations performance appraisals usually involve a joint effort between the expatriate's managers. At a minimum they must confer, and they should make an effort to be fair and objective. At the intellectual level most managers know the stresses and difficulties expatriates face. It comes down to a question of fairness and understanding. The best managers handle this well, seeing to it that their employees are not victimized by circumstance. The most fortunate (or politically skilful) expatriates become beneficiaries of management largess reaping dual recognition and material rewards from both sides of the aisle.

Personal Development

These are some of the dilemmas that need to be considered in understanding the psychology of Matrix relationships. Truly, one man's meat is another man's poison. For the hearty, expatriate experience offers a rich training base for the acquisition of a wide range of valued management related administrative, conceptual, interpersonal, and (importantly) political skills. Such experience is well suited to developing future General Managers.    

Managerial Power Dynamics

Project Managers are often touted as being in a position to exert clout. And of course they are to some extent, especially with respect to calling the shots technically - that is, making the technical decisions on their products and services. This is as it should be. At the same time, it is also widely recognized that their best tool is persuasion via reason and interpersonal skill.

The reality that underlies this is rooted in the fact that Functional Managers also command resources - human, technical, and financial resources - along with interpretive authority over regulations the institution requires them to apply to "corporate" operations. All of these are vital to the Project Manager's success.

To the extent a Project Manager relies on the support of Functional Office Chiefs, a power relationship exists. That relationship, though balanced by other factors is nevertheless a pervasive force behind the "games" these managers play in the course of getting their interests met.

And it is important to note that these interests are not always mutual. Both Project and Functional Managers have sources of influence, constituencies, and "currency" to expend in getting their missions accomplished.

Influence and Clout

When someone has a resource needed by another, that someone has potential clout. Some writers refer to these resources as "currencies" - a good, trader metaphor.  Trading currencies may include such things as:

  • providing organizational funds
  • the ability to allocate manpower, time, physical facilities
  • sharing or withholding technical knowledge,
  • offering discretionary assistance, regulatory and or legal interpretation
  • audit control
  • authority to set priorities
  • ability to set or extend deadlines.

Even though these are rarely one-sided, absolute powers in most matrixed organizations, the players are skilful at playing their hands by engaging in organizational "games." And, as stressed in my earlier comments, one can expect this to be most prevalent in organizations having a weak, under-developed, non-supportive cultures.

"Games" Played

The Golden Rule states that he who owns the gold, rules.

  • We ask who controls the financial resources to accomplish the projects?
  • Is funding authority split or shared?
  • Does most of the funding reside in the Project Manager offices enabling them alone to control outlays for the manpower support they need from the Functionals?

Often this is the case, but not always, and not entirely. It may happen that their financial resources are inadequate and they must "pass the hat" around the Functionals to close the monetary gap. This confers influence that may be expressed through game playing.

But the Golden Rule notwithstanding, money is not the only trading currency by a long shot. Other currencies involve

  • cooperation and support
  • the extension of other scarce resources on a responsive and timely basis
  • command of loyalties
  • support in the front office.

While neither side is without clout, if I had to wager whose is the greater, I would go with the large Functional office managers because the Project Managers are more exposed. They are the primary focal point of accountability in the eyes of those in the top executive tiers. Project Managers know this. What is more, their Functional counterparts know they know this. To take it a step further, both are well aware of the limitations and restraints upon their respective authority imposed by the defensive and offensive organizational games of the other.

I Characterize Such Ploys As:

Font of Knowledge - Using the sharing or withholding of expertise to one's advantage.

Close to God - Playing up one's influence with top executives.

Who's Your Daddy? - Reminding the other of one's monetary control.

Tit for Tat - Taking punitive actions to avenge some perceived grievance. Telling tales out of school, delaying needed technical support, reports, withholding manpower, uncovering mismanagement through audits, etc.

Donning the Mask - Presenting the prevailing state of affairs among matrix office elements as cooperative and non-problematical to upper echelons when in fact they are not.

Passing the Buck - The old blame game.

Promises, Promises - Giving assurances of support to one's peers glibly and not following through.

Low Balling - Intentionally estimating the costs involved in supporting an operation to induce approval.

Gun to Head - Outright intimidation, threat of imposing negative consequences for non-compliance or non-support

Log Rolling - Exchanging favors in return for support.

Cold War - Maintaining a static balance of power through game playing.

Nit Picking - Exerting the power to reject the other's inputs not on the basis of their merits, but instead, unrelated antagonistic feelings.

Sand Bagging - Causing the other dependant office to fail due to inordinately delayed input.

Death by In-Basket - A variant of the above - the other's work is accorded a low priority and is starved of action.

Bear Trapper - A deliberate ruse employed to cause the other manager embarrassment in the face of his superiors.

Corner - Setting up conditions in which the other party find itself damned if they do and damned if they don't.

I am not taking sides here. No one has a monopoly on gamesmanship. Both Functional and Project Managers are adept at game playing. The thought I want to end with is simply that viewing the Matrix structure as some sort of silver bullet is highly naive.

What is singularly most important to success within a matrix organization is a genuine commitment to the success of the enterprise as a whole, and not to any sub-element. This, as already suggested is the true coin of the realm in any successful organization, whatever its organizational design/structure.


Ó Charles Albano, 2004

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