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Matrix Management for Strategic Projects

By Dr. Harold Kerzner
October 26, 2022


In the past 40-50 years, there has been a great deal of literature published discussing the pros and cons of matrix management as well as step-by-step instructions on how to make it work well. What many people failed to realize was that the growth of matrix management during this time was heavily oriented around traditional projects rather than strategic projects. Accompanying the growth and acceptance of flexible methodologies such as Agile and Scrum has been a growth in strategic and other types of projects that were often difficult to manage with a one-size-fits-all methodology. The new methodologies have forced us to revisit the challenges with some established project management practices such as matrix management.

Traditional projects start out with well-defined requirements, a business case, a statement of work and possibly a detailed work breakdown structure listing all the work packages needed to be accomplished. Strategic projects may begin with just an idea and the requirements are elaborated as the work progresses. Strategic projects can differ from traditional projects by requiring:

  • Different types of organizational resources
  • Different information requirements for decision-making
  • More individuals involved in decision-making
  • More risk-taking with possibly a greater impact on the business
  • More project execution time than usually required than for traditional projects
  • A greater understanding of the VUCA environment and its impact on the projects (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity)
  • Greater participation from the senior levels of management

Traditional projects in a matrix organization usually focus on deliverables for a specific customer. The goal is short-term profitability. Strategic projects may focus on the long-term needs of each senior manager and long-term corporate sustainability. These differences can change many of the core processes used in current matrix management practices, namely how decisions are made and who makes the decisions, how much risk team members are willing to accept when working with limited initial project requirements, information needs that are subject to possibly continuous changes, and a willingness to accept numerous changes in scope and direction. These differences due to the new types of projects are expected to cause significant changes to how we worked previously in a matrix organization.

Understand Matrix Management

Most companies today that have a need to execute many projects, often at the same time, are organized in some form of a matrix structure. The matrix organizational structure is the layering of one or more new organizational forms on top of the existing vertical hierarchy to obtain horizontal as well as vertical workflow at the same time. The intent is to build cross-functional project teams. The horizontal lines superimposed on top of the vertical hierarchy are usually referred to as projects and are removed from the organizational chart when the projects are completed.

The concept of matrix management and horizontal (or multidirectional) workflow became common practice in the aerospace industry beginning in the 1970s mainly because of technical reasons stemming from the need for innovation, new product development, and improved quality management practices. The challenge was the need to solve often complex technical problems that required the sharing of information between functional (i.e., vertical) units. In simple matrix structures, each horizontal line on the organizational chart represented a team or project and is headed up by a project or program manager whose prime responsibility is in a liaison role to coordinate information across functional units.

The resources assigned to project teams are owned by the functional managers and are assigned to the projects after negotiations between the project and functional managers. Once the assigned resources have completed their portion of the work, they return to their functional units. However, during the execution of the projects, team members most often are subjected to multiple boss reporting requirements where they must report to both the project manager and their respective functional manager simultaneously. The situation is further complicated if the team members are subjected to different sets of constraints and instructions they must adhere to.

Matrix structures tend to transform organizations from a vertical to hybrid organizational forms focusing on the execution of projects. The benefits of effective matrix management practices include the sharing of knowledge, coordination of multifunctional tasks, and decision-making involving several participants.

Matrix Structure Challenges

While on paper the matrix structure looks quite good, there are significant challenges facing the leader of project teams. The challenges include:

  • The resources are owned by the functional units
  • The functional managers may not assign the right resources to the projects
  • The functional managers may have their own priority system which is different from the priority of the project and are unwilling to assign the resources when needed thus causing unwanted fluctuations in resource assignments
  • The resources may be assigned to multiple projects, each with a different workload requirement
  • The assigned resources may take instructions only from their functional managers rather than the project managers, or simply may favor functional managers when conflicting instructions are given
  • The project managers may have no authority over the assigned resources, have no input into performance reviews of the resources, and cannot get resources removed from the projects without assistance from the functional unit managers
  • The budgets and schedules for the projects may be determined prior to the start of the project and may be unrealistic
  • Conflicts that arise on the projects may not be able to be resolved by the project manager alone
  • Not all team members will see the project the same way and may have different ways of communicating, thus adding complexity to the communication and integration needs of the projects
  • Team members may not like the leadership style used by the project manager and resist accepting instructions and advice
  • There are often numerous delays in project decision-making because the individuals in power to make the decisions are not active members of the project team
  • The corporate culture may be different and in conflict with the project team culture

Over the past several decades, advances in matrix management practices have provided solutions and recommendations for continuous improvements in how organizational teams must collaborate. Most of the above-mentioned issues and challenges have become manageable. However, as stated previously, the growth in the need for more strategic projects has created new challenges for matrix management practices.

Competing Cultures

The most significant challenge with strategic projects will be resolving the issues with competing cultures. It has taken several decades for senior management to accept the need for cooperative cultures for traditional projects. Traditional projects, with well-defined upfront requirements, focus more so on short-term rather than long-term profitability and decision-making. Strategic projects have the potential to influence the future careers of organizational decision-makers and team members, thus making it difficult for them to surrender decision-making rights to others as is the case with traditional projects. In addition, there is the fear that there might be a dilution in the effectiveness of senior management without control from above over strategic projects.

On traditional projects, team members may be assigned part-time or for short periods of time. On strategic projects, there is a greater likelihood that team members may be full-time and for longer periods of time. There is also the chance that many of the team members have never worked with one another previously. As such, the impact arising from each team member’s culture from their parent line functional organization must be known. Some cultures value risk-taking, a desire to speak one’s mind, and a willingness to participate in decision-making, while others do not.

If you want team members to become engaged in the project and trust the people they must interface with, you must perform cultural research and discover their expectations as well as what might offend them. Developing trusting relationships is critical if you want team members to see how they can meaningfully contribute to the success of the project.

Part of cultural research must include the team members’ perception of authority, specifically who is in charge and is empowered to make decisions. Some cultures sustain the belief that functional authority comes before project authority. This could create problems if team members are receiving conflicting instructions from the project manager and their functional managers.

Executive Involvement

As stated previously, executive involvement in strategic projects may be significantly different from traditional projects. Executives may have hidden agendas for certain projects that may have an impact on their careers or future desires. Their interest may appear in just certain projects rather than all the strategic projects in the portfolio.

Executive involvement may be just a need to know or a desire to control the decision-making process. It would be beneficial if the project leaders could interview senior management and find out their interest in certain strategic projects and how they wish to be involved. Having an ambiguous chain of commend in a matrix organization leads to frustration and often poor performance.

Active executive involvement with strategic projects may be a necessity. Many team members may be new to matrix management and executives can help selling the concept. Executives can also assist in maintaining the proper balance of power in the matrix between the vertical and horizontal lines. Finally, involvement in decisions on strategic projects may require participation by more than one executive.

Team Members

In matrix management, you may find it necessary to collaborate with people you have never met and do not report to you. They come from diverse cultures and, because of the nature of strategic projects, may not even be sure that they fully understand what they are expected to do.

Matrix management can provide projects with the best talent in the company regardless of location of the personnel. However, getting them engaged and excited to work together as a cohesive unit requires that you establish an atmosphere of trust with the team members.

Effective communication is a necessity in all type of matrix organizations but may be the most important skill needed by the project managers when dealing with strategic projects that begin with just an idea rather than fully defined requirements as in traditional projects. Strategic projects may require team members to think and act differently (i.e., thinking out of the box).

Team members must have a clear understanding of what this project means to the company and how they might benefit personally from a successful result. You should ask them what their expectations might be from being assigned to this project. Even though the team members are not your direct reports, you may need to convince them that you will inform their superiors of their performance even though you may not be asked to do so. As stated by Kinor and Francis:

“First, you must build a relationship with everyone. This is the best way to create trust and prove you have their best interests in mind. When you can establish these types of emotional connections, you’ll forge strong and long-lasting working relationships. This might mean scheduling a time to talk one-on-one – in person if they’re local or over the phone or via a video conference – at the start of the project. Use this time to discuss the project and ask for input on how everyone can bring his or her best work to the table.”


Matrix management practices with traditional projects have made organizations stronger. Hopefully, the same success will occur with strategic projects. If organizations cannot overcome challenges with cultural differences, changes in executive involvement and new team member involvement in a timely manner when addressing strategic projects, serious issues can arise that might inhibit the organization’s success and strategy execution.

Kinor, Len; Francis, Ed. Feb (2016). Navigating Matrix Management, Leadership Excellence. Vol. 33 Issue 2, p23-24.

About the Author

Dr. Harold D. Kerzner, Ph.D., is Senior Executive Director at the International Institute for Learning, Inc., a global learning solutions company that conducts training for leading corporations throughout the world. 

He is a globally recognized expert on project, program, and portfolio management, total quality management, and strategic planning. Dr. Kerzner is the author of bestselling books and texts, including the acclaimed Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Thirteenth Edition. His latest book, Project Management Next Generation: The Pillars for Organizational Excellence, co-authored with Dr. Al Zeitoun and Dr. Ricardo Viana Vargas, delivers an expert discussion on project management implementation of all kinds.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.
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