Matrix organisations – Become Neo to succeed as a Project Manager

“Most companies have expensive IT systems they have developed over the years, but they are siloed






1. Isolate (one system, process, department, etc.) from others.

Silo is often used to describe large organisations structured around functional areas. The analogy is appropriate given the strong (tower-like) vertical structures in place and tenuous or missing horizontal connections. Typically, functional managers direct these silos, and they can be impregnable or penetrated. In this type of structure, any project that crosses the boundaries of functional silos must breach these intangible but powerful barriers.

Picturing a project manager in a weak matrix structure, what comes to mind is a glorified administrator who reports on projects, but has little influence over them. We’ll call this project manager Anderson. With more administration than management and little or no action, chances of success are minimal.

Some reasons for this prognosis:

  • People contributing to the project change their commitment in terms of capacity or schedule, or more usually are directed to change their commitment, leaving Anderson to continuously readjust the project around their flip-flopping.
  • Stakeholders impose unexpected changes while the schedule and budget remain unmoveable. Anderson can only say yes, and update the project plan to accommodate the change, however unrealistic it may be.
  • People don’t engage or seem compelled to engage. Typical passive-aggressive behaviour includes not answering emails, not returning phone calls or even not attending meetings, leaving Anderson wasting his time chasing them.
  • People elude responsibility or avoid work, but Anderson must keep them on the team.
  • Despite all the above, Anderson is accountable for the project’s results.

In a weak matrix organisation these situations are not uncommon. If Anderson escalates such an issue to management, the latter usually protects their people and disregards Anderson’s request. Let’s face it: Anderson has no power in a weak matrix organisation.

NeoThankfully, all is not lost.

Anderson worked as a hacker. He took the name Neo, after he was freed from the Matrix.

There are ways to overcome the project management challenges in a weak matrix structure.

Build good relationships with functional managers

How? How can Neo collaborate with the functional manager to keep control over the project and make it successful?

Agreeing on who does what between Neo and the functional manager is critical to avoid conflicts that may arise from overlapping responsibilities. Neo should focus on high-level activities and deliverables, and monitor progress. The functional manager, however, is responsible for translating these high-level objectives into actions that will be performed by his/her teams.

When dealing with multiple functional managers, assessing a project’s status and keeping a realistic plan up-to-date is a challenging task. Setting up flows of information early on will make the project manager’s job considerably easier.  Avoid bringing cumbersome project management artefacts to the table. Instead, use simple communication materials that provide the right level of detail for functional managers.

Neo should take the lead to establish these rules. It helps keep control over the project, as well as demonstrating his added value. The functional manager will appreciate that Neo takes the initiative to organise collaboration, as long as it’s not done in a directive fashion.

Power by influence

Neo has limited authority. Instead, he leads by negotiation. He does not direct, but coordinates.

Power by authority is overrated. Real, lasting power comes from influence, which leads to trust. Trust depends on

  1. Respecting the roles and interests of the stakeholders
  2. Understanding the functional and technical aspects enough to coordinate activities
  3. Genuine interest in the project’s and the organisation’s success.

Reporting is an important influencing tool. By choosing which (objective) information to show, when, and to whom, Neo can exert powerful influence.

Understand the matrix

Neo has to develop deep organisational knowledge to identify and digest relevant information. This is called situational awareness. In a weak matrix organisation where dilution of roles and responsibilities exist, over-communication is a necessary evil. Neo is at its centre.

On the flip side it places Neo in an ideal position to represent not only the interests of the project but also of the organisation.

In conclusion, although Anderson had little formal authority in a weak matrix structure, Neo has considerable power in the form of influence. Neo develops unique strengths over time. First, he has broader organisational knowledge than any stakeholder taken individually. Second, he has corporate-level credibility because he is apolitical and not aligned to any specific department. Third, he is the only one mandated to report at project-level.