Newly-Hired Project Managers: The Matrix Has You

Nothing can make a newly-hired project manager (PM) feel more like Neo from the blockbuster movie The Matrix than encountering the nebulous dynamics that exist between PMs and functional managers within a matrix organization.

Although the terms "weak", "balanced" and "strong" matrix are convenient ways to simplify the nature of the power balance between these two roles, they ignore the fact that relationship behaviors are forged between individuals and the general power structure within an organization merely provides the context for the relationship.

Just like the character Neo, it is not uncommon to find weak matrix organizations where the influence and credibility of a specific project manager enables them to bend or exceed the default power rules to help them achieve their project objectives.

To establish appropriate expectations, here is a list of questions that a PM can review with functional managers the first time they are requesting resources for their projects.

  1. What degree of involvement will the PM have with regards to vacation or other non-working day approval for team members? At a minimum, one would expect that the PM should have some lead time visibility into these requests, but in some cases, the functional manager may want the PM to be one of the approvers for such requests.
  2. What process needs to be followed for providing constructive feedback to project team members? Is the PM allowed to directly provide this feedback, do they need to engage the functional manager in the dialogue, or do they merely provide the feedback to the functional manager and rely on them to convey it to the team member?
  3. Is the PM able or expected to provide an evaluation of a team member’s performance before they are released from the project, and if so, is there a specific format or medium that should be used?
  4. How should the PM go about informing the functional manager if their need for a team member’s time is going to increase or decrease?
  5. How should the functional manager go about informing the PM if the operational or competing project demands on a team member’s time are going to increase?
  6. How much input can the PM have into which team member is assigned for a particular project role?

Going through this list might seem onerous, but without establishing some rules of engagement, a PM might make false assumptions based on their understanding of the general power structure of the organization. To quote Morpheus from The Matrix, "Neo, sooner or later you're going to realize, just as I did, that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."