The Cultural Challenges of Matrix Organizations
Publication: Project Management Institute
(Times change and so do links. The original link to this post is no longer available online.)
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch and Conrado Morlan

Managing projects in any type of organization is not an easy task. Structures vary from functional to projectized to a blend of both, the matrix organization. In this scenario, project managers usually report to a member of the management team and the project team consists of resources from different functional areas. In weak and balanced matrix organizations, project managers have limited authority and independence, while in strong ones they have full control of the project.

Resource availability and project priority can trigger conflict between functional and project managers and be a challenge in weak and balanced matrix organizations. Team members may struggle with issues of:

  • Loyalty (functional boss vs. project manager);
  • Communication styles (delivering the message their boss expects without offending the project manager); and
  • Decision-making ability (whose approval is needed?).

The human factor is always hard to manage and only increases in complexity when combined with culturally based differences.

The following are important points to consider*:

Does your organization have a more hierarchical or egalitarian culture?

Open information sharing and a positive view of collaboration are essential for successful projects. Hierarchical environments tend to create an added limitation in weak and balanced matrix organizations. Information is protected based on rank. Roles and responsibilities are rigid, and cooperation is therefore impeded. In egalitarian environments, information flows more freely as it becomes available, creating less of a barrier to project success.

Is your culture focused more on rules or relationships?

Matrix organizations require more loyalty to projects than to people. In relationship-based cultures, loyalty tends to be long-term and reside in people, not positions in the organization. There is an “it depends” attitude. Project team members place loyalty to those with whom they have personal relationships ahead of loyalty to the project manager, creating an added constraint. In rules-based cultures, project team members consider that there is less of a choice and “the rules are the rules.”

Are matrix organizations aligned with your organizational culture?

Organizational culture is developed at the headquarters and disseminated locally to support a mission and vision. Local external factors, including national culture, geography, government regulations and market conditions, will impact whether an organizational culture is effectively assimilated. An organizational culture will not be adopted 100% everywhere—effectiveness is conceived locally and not globally. Trying to make matrix organizations work everywhere is denying the differences that exist.

How can project managers overcome challenges posed by a company’s culture? Suggestions for helping to create a more effective project environment in a matrix organization include:

  • Familiarize yourself with and assimilate the organizational chart. Hierarchical cultures appreciate, desire and value order. Your position comes first in the hierarchy—and then your function in the organization.
  • Develop a clear project charter and establish the project steering committee responsibilities includingconflict management and delegation of authority. Allow higher level conflicts to be managed by the steering committee.
  • As a project manager, you should always establish a strong network to help you influence from both inside and outside the project. Make the important distinction between your job and your role: Your job is to manage the project. Your role may be that of a trainer, teacher, facilitator, coach, liaison or representative, for example.

Regardless of the matrix organization, the project manager should lead and persuade counterparts, stressing the importance of the project and the benefits that it will bring when successfully completed.

* Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, Second Edition (Nicholas Brealey, 1997)