Matrix Management

Functional matrix, weak matrix or vertical matrix organization?

A number of clients have been asking me recently about different forms of matrix – functional matrix, weak matrix, strong matrix, balanced matrix, solid, dotted line matrix etc… So I thought I would try to get the definitions straight.

The nearest thing to a consensus on this is provided by the Project Management Institute. The PMI, quite properly, looks at it from a project management perspective and seems to assume that one “leg” of the matrix is always a project. When they describe a matrix as “weak” it means that the project manger is weak (the functional managers would see it as quite a strong matrix from their perspective, so this form is often called the functional matrix too)

In a sense though, if the activity is only (and I don’t mean to be disparaging to projects) a project then you don’t need to change from a traditional functional organization to a formal matrix organization structure. A series of specific projects or virtual teams could be enough (unless we have very long term projects).

So am going to start with the project management definitions of matrix forms and then extend them to other forms of activity that may drive a formal matrix organization structure, (of which a project is one of the less common ones we experience in our work).

Weak or functional matrix / vertical matrix organization

We will start with a weak or I prefer the term – functional matrix. In this form of organization, the functional manager retains most of the power; they “own” the people and resources.

In a weak / functional matrix, the project manager is not very powerful. Usually they carry out an administrative or coordinating role and rely on the functional manages to get things done. These project coordinators often report in to the functional matrix management structure.

This makes the functional matrix or weak matrix unpopular with project managers but it is often a transitional form as organizations move from traditional functional or vertical silos towards a more integrated way of working across the organization. The easiest way to begin this journey is through projects.

It is arguable whether a traditional functional organization structure plus some lateral/horizontal working in projects is actually a matrix organization at all. It is a matrix style of working but the structure may well continue to be functional and vertical.

I have yet to come across an organization where one of the legs of the matrix is not functional so the term functional matrix or vertical matrix is good shorthand for one where the vertical / functional parts of the matrix have most power.

If we were going to bring solid lines (stronger relationship) or dotted lines (weaker relationship) into the equation, in a functional matrix the solid line would be to the functional matrix manager and the dotted line (or no line at all) to the project manager or horizontal activity manager

In the next post we will look at the so called strong matrix and the balanced matrix organization and move beyond projects to look at the other sources of power that can drive the other leg(s) of the matrix

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