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Matrix Structures: The Pros and Cons

A matrix organisation structure is one where there are multiple cross-functional, cross-business unit groups. Often individuals in the matrix have more than one line manager, or maybe one ‘solid line’ line manager and one or more ‘dotted line’ managers.

It happens because work responsibilities aren’t linear any more. A role that is titled as ‘Marketing Manager’ may have elements of internal communications, digital marketing, sales, customer relations, complaints handling plus all the strategic stuff and liaison with other business units. As the lines between business divisions become a bit less clear (and our jobs get more varied and interesting) knowing how to work in a matrix organisation becomes even more important.

If you think about it, many project managers and sponsors work on a dotted line basis, where you might be managing a project on behalf of a sponsor who is not your direct boss. Many project managers are used to working in this kind of environment. But have you ever stopped to think about the pros and cons of how that affects your project team?

We’re going to do that in this article. Let’s start with the positives. Here are some advantages for working in a matrix.

A Flexible Resource Pool

The entire organisation forms the resource pool for projects in a matrix structure. Need someone from Marketing? No problem, they can be magically matrixed into your project team. Want to pick the brains of someone from Customer Service? Co-opt them on to the team under the matrix structure.

There is a huge amount of flexibility in a true matrix structure. The best resources can be picked for the job at hand meaning you should get the expertise you need for your project.

Less Downtime for Resources

Less downtime? I don’t know anyone right now who has any downtime, let alone less.

However, the theory says that as the resource pool in a matrix structure is flexible, resources are free to work on several projects at once. In a projectised structure, where resources have line management accountability into the project manager, they are ring-fenced for that particular project so they can’t juggle several at once.

Juggling several projects at once also has disadvantages but it should allow for people’s skills to be used more efficiently. You should be able to reduce any downtime or slow periods because they can pick up on other project tasks when another project is slack.

Consistent Methods

When the resource pool is flexible and the structure is a matrix, by necessity everyone in the organisation requires a consistent way of working. Otherwise individuals will get confused about what each project manager expects of them and management reporting will be a mess of documents that don’t allow you to compare the progress of different projects.

A consistent method also helps when you’re moving people between projects: there’s less of a learning curve so they should be able to contribute usefully to the team much more quickly. There is more standardisation which, even if it wasn’t deliberate, is a good way of boosting the maturity of project management delivery in a company.

Those are 3 advantages of working in a matrix structure as a project manager, but as you can imagine it isn’t all good news. Here are some disadvantages to trying to run your project in the matrix.

matrixConflict, Conflict, Conflict

Conflict is a major disadvantage of projects trying to move forward in a matrix structure.

This happens when someone who is supposed to be working on your project is torn between doing project tasks for you and their day job for their ‘real’ line manager. Throw in work for another project manager on a different project and you’ve got a real recipe for disaster when it comes to busy times. Especially if you can’t predict when the busy times or crises will come (and if we could predict a crisis it wouldn’t be a crisis, would it?).

You might be able to manage this in the early days of the project when you are planning and preparing, or even at the close, as the work tails off, but a conflict of loyalty that hits you slap bang in the middle of the design, build and test stages can have a huge impact on your delivery dates.

Let’s not even talk about conflict of interest.

Inability To Access Resources

You know how earlier I said that resource management in a matrix structure meant that you could get your hands on the best people for the job?

Well, it doesn’t always work that way.

You want Thomas because he’s got 15 years of experience doing exactly what you need him to do, he loves doing it and he’s a joy to work with. Everyone wants Thomas. Thomas’s line manager wants Thomas to stay working on the really important client account that he’s managing right now and won’t give him up.

You can have Clarabel. Clarabel is a graduate trainee. You are sure that she is very nice but she doesn’t have the skills that Thomas does. The matrix says that you are stuck with Clarabel and that might add a couple of weeks to your plan and some cost to your budget as you train her and deal with the fact that she just can’t do the work as well or as fast.

And if that wasn’t a problem enough, your project sponsor doesn’t get why resources make that much difference so she’s not expecting a lower quality or slower outcome.

When line managers ring-fence the “best” resources (whatever that looks like for the particular task at hand) for other work, there’s very little you can do about it. They may be extremely valuable to the team where they are currently based and it can often have little to do with people playing office politics and more to do with business priorities.

Whatever the cause, you can get stuck with resources who are less skilled or less experienced than you had hoped for and you have to deal with that.

Matrix structures have plenty of advantages and are increasingly common. Once you know what challenges you might be facing you can be better placed to succeed in that kind of set up.

Which of these have you seen on your projects? And how did you get round them? Let us know in the comments.

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