Project manager authority vs. project organizing

Published by Massimoluigi Casinelli on

Particular of Trajan Column in Rome

The most used organization structures can be grouped into the following categories:

  • Functional organizations;
  • Matrix organizations
  • Projectized organizations.

In which type of organization does the project manager have the maximum authority?

In so called “strong matrix organization” or in a “projectized model”.

On converse, in a “weak matrix structure”, the project manager has definitely less power. To understand this point, it is necessary considering that matrix organizations were created to overcome problems of the traditional functional organizations, where projects were assigned to a “project manager” belonging to a specific functional department, reporting to the head of that department. In other words, the project manager worked in a specific department and he/she had to interact with other departments, with no authority to do that.

Projects execution entail managing complex processes crossing many departments and the inadequacy of the functional organizations showed up clearly. Also, in such as organization the flow of the information was less than optimal, as the information flew vertically up and down along the chain od command of the specific departments and / or divisions, before passing to the other department.  It is easy to figure out how difficult was following up any request of the Client.

Matrix structure was introduced to overcome the “silos” and streamline the process, which is typically “horizontal”, crossing various departments.  Unfortunately, if the matrix is “weak” the project manager function might be still frustrated: the project manager acts as an expediter or a project coordinator (see note 1) but still with a very limited authority.

In such as organization, project manager cannot make or enforce any decision and still refers completely to the functional heads, for example to get resources assignments and/or to impose deadlines to activities. Similarly, he/she does not have enough authority with the resources assigned to the project by the various functional heads.

[1] But not in same meaning that the role has in a projectized structure.

The balanced matrix vs strong matrix

The solution is a so called “balanced matrix organization”; “balancing” refers to level of authority between the functional manager and the project manager. In a “balanced matrix” the project manager has the proper level of authority, which is comparable with the authority of the functional head. In a balanced matrix organization, a project manager has the level of authority to “impose” deadlines and priorities with the head of the functional departments.

The “balanced matrix organization” is a good solution but, but not for every type of project. In fact, sometimes, even companies organized by matrix decide to adopt a “strong matrix“.

In a “strong” matrix the power of the project manager is higher than functional heads. In matrix organizations PMs usually refers to head of project management.

Companies organized usually by matrix might decide to adopt a “project task force” (projectized model) to manage a specific programme or project.

In balanced and strong matrix, or projectized organizations, there is usually a project director, who represents the maximum authority of the programme or project. Project directors are usually present in project-driven organization like EPC companies working in large-size chemical, oil and gas and power projects.

If you’re interested in project management you may follow my blog Beyond project controls.

Massimoluigi Casinelli

I am a chartered civil engineer and certified CCP (cost engineering and total cost management) at AACE International, with thirty years of experience in project management of the construction sector. I deliver expert planning, programme management and project controls on multibillions-Euro infrastructure programmes, including highways and railways, metro, air terminals and complex buildings (commercial, residential, schools), with some experience in oil & gas and power. I worked in advanced contexts of project management (from matrix organizations of EPC contractors to large employers organized to manage complex capital projects), by undertaking various roles in the field of project management / controls and contract management; this diverse range of experiences allowed me to gain knowledge on the various components of project controls (schedule, cost estimating, budgeting and cost control, progress and performance measurement, risk and claim management). I am an Italian citizen, currently in Italy.

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