Matrix Project Team

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In the matrix project team, you borrow people from other departments, not from your own. Matrix project teams have always been popular with project managers. They are a way to get resources for your project without paying consulting fees or persuading people in your organization to give up some of their staff.  That sounds like a fabulous bargain but managing a matrix team is not easy. There are a number of challenges. Leading Teams Main Page

Acquiring A Matrix Project Team

First, the project manager has no inherent authority to borrow people from other departments. So the project manager asks the sponsor to contact the lending department and use his/her power and authority to secure resources for their project team. That doesn’t always work because the sponsor, no matter how high-ranking in your part of the organization, may be ignored when he/she contacts another department to borrow resources. It’s understandable that the lending departments are not enthusiastic about acting like a resource pool for matrix project teams. They lose time from some of their valuable people and the project doesn’t compensate them for the loss. They often must have other employees work overtime to make up for the hours lost to a matrix project team. Those factors often result in lending managers loaning the person they can most easily afford to lose for a few months.

Second, the borrowed matrix team members can be recalled to their “home” departments whenever there is a need. From the perspective of the lending department manager, the work there will always take priority over work on someone else’s project.  So the project manager who borrows matrix resources can lose them in an instant and face immediate project schedule problems.

The third problem with matrix team members is that they earn their raises and promotions in their home department, not on the project. The project manager may have some input into their performance review or may write a complimentary memo or note for their file at project completion, but that doesn’t count for much. Understandably, matrix project team members are often focused on their department’s interests, not on completing challenging project assignments.

Managing A Matrix Project Team

Even if the project manager overcomes the issues we’ve discussed above, they face the very real challenge of managing these borrowed people so they have some level of enthusiasm and commitment to the project goal.

Forget about all the platitudes and well-intended phrases you hear about matrix management.  Every person on a matrix team does not carry the same weight or have the same influence.  Matrix project teams are often composed of and led by people from a primary organization and supported by resources from “outside” the organization.  Some examples include:

  • mixed government-contractor teams
  • Project Management Office-led teams supported by engineering, logistics, business office, etc.
  • primary contractor-led, subcontractor-contributing teams
  • teams led by “graybeards” and supported by less experienced members.

Total equality within a matrix project team is neither possible nor desirable. A hierarchy of authority is necessary on any project. But one of the PM’s most important “people duties” at the outset of a project is to make every member of the matrix team feel included and that their role is as important as any other.  If the PM fails to establish that perception early and clearly, matrix project team members can quickly develop the attitude of project “outsiders.” They feel their contribution is secondary or unimportant to the project manager or even the project itself. They quickly develop the attitude that the project is not worthy of their best effort.

To address this challenge, you should have a project “kickoff” meeting  as soon as all your resources have been identified.  Although this meeting serves many purposes (e.g., to discuss roles and responsibilities, processes, requirements, etc.), one of its greatest benefits is to give the message that every team member’s contribution is critical to the project’s success.  Not establishing an early atmosphere of inclusiveness and investment in achieving the project objective is a lost opportunity with potentially large consequences.

You can learn these team leadership skills in our project management basics courses. You’ll work individually with your instructor at your schedule and pace. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on