Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

By design, project team members in a matrixed organization often juggle a variety of assignments. But how do you make certain that those team members don’t drop the ball? Focusing on communication is the key.

The dilemma
James was starting the testing phase on his project to install document management software for the legal department. He was falling behind schedule, he said, because he didn’t have dedicated resources on his project team.

“I think our estimates for testing are fine, but the members of my team are not spending the time required to get the testing done,“ James said. “I keep hearing about the virtues of matrix management, but it’s killing me. Everyone assigned to the project has other responsibilities as well.”

He complained that some of his team members were spending too much time on their other work and not enough time on his project. In the future, he hoped that an entire team would only be assigned to his project.

“That sounds good in theory,” I sympathized. “But the projects for the legal department normally aren’t very large. They don’t have enough project work for a full-time quality assurance person, database administrators, and developers. You are always going to have to share resources with other initiatives.”

How a matrixed organization affects assignments
Before I explain how James should handle this dilemma, I need to explain three ways project teams can be structured within an organization. Teams can be:

  • Functionally focused. All team members work in the same organization.
  • Project focused. All team members report directly to the project manager for the life of the project.
  • Matrixed: Team members report to one functional manager and one or more project managers for workload.

The type of team structure you adopt usually depends on the type of work and the size of the projects your organization executes. In the example above, it makes sense for the legal department to be organized using matrix management. They have numerous projects, but the workload is not large enough to require team members on a full-time basis.

In a matrixed organization, the project manager must be especially diligent in estimating the duration of the project and the time required by team members to complete it. These estimates are taken to the functional managers to ensure that team members will be available when needed.

One of the benefits of a matrixed organization is to be able to spread scarce resources and skill sets over a variety of projects. This helps maintain staffing flexibility and allows an organization to adapt to new business needs.

On the other hand, a matrixed organization introduces staffing challenges that must be proactively managed. Project managers in a matrixed organization must take precautions to ensure your team members have the time and commitment to follow through on their assignments.

Mentor advice
The frustration that James is feeling is common in a matrixed organization. Here is a summary of the techniques he should use to try to resolve the conflict:

  • As the project progresses, James must communicate with the functional managers to ensure that team members will be available when needed.
  • He must communicate proactively with his team members so that they manage their time effectively and meet project deadlines.
  • If James is not getting the time commitment he needs from team members, he should take the issue to senior management.

By doing a better job of communicating, James can ensure that other work assignments do not squeeze out the time allocation he needs for his project.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching project management and life-cycle skills to the IS division. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

What problems have you faced when managing projects? Tom Mochal will address the issues that affect the widest number of readers. Post a comment below or send us a note.