ASCE Fall Convention – October 1982
By Steven Pinnell


Experience in the management of projects is one of the best means of training future general managers and entrepreneurs. This paper examines the matrix management structure and “culture” as a vehicle to assist in training project managers and in preparing them for general management responsibilities.

An overview of matrix management is given along with comments on implementing a matrix structure. The effect of a matrix structure on the development of project managers is then discussed in detail along with some recommendations to enhance the management development process, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls. The transition from project management to functional and general management is also briefly covered and the paper concludes with some recommendations for both the individual engineer who is interested in becoming a manager, and the organization that needs to develop new managers.



All permanent organizations need to develop new managers, if only to replace those who eventually retire. Hiring already experienced managers is only a partial alternative, as current employees must have an opportunity to develop and outsiders need time to learn the ropes. If continued development of existing managers is a basic premise of healthy organizations, as it should be, then management training is an essential, ongoing function.

This paper examines the experience of project management as a means of developing functional managers and general managers. In particular, it considers a matrix management structure with overlapping responsibility of both functional managers and project managers as not solely an effective means of managing work, but, also an excellent vehicle for developing managers.


The following definitions are provided to ensure clarity:

A project is a series of related tasks (activities), all of which must be done to accomplish a specified objective. A function is a number of similar but not directly related tasks that must be continually performed to fulfill an ongoing responsibility. A project task may be indistinguishable from a functional task — except that one leads toward a specific objective. A program is a long range, sometimes open-ended series of projects (or functional tasks) that are being managed as a group. The projects are usually related in that the program is directed towards some long-range general goal of the organization.

A functional organization accomplishes a project by allocating the tasks to various functional departments (engineering disciplines and support groups) and usually centrally monitors their accomplishment. Aproject organization assigns full responsibility to a separate team that has all the resources required to accomplish the project (except perhaps accounting, computer services, etc.). A matrix organization is a blend of the other two with primary project responsibility given to a project manager and some or all of the resources required to accomplish the project assigned to functional managers.

Matrix management is the management of projects (and functional tasks) in an organizational structure and culture that combines features of functional and project management. Program management is the overseeing of the management of many individual but related projects by several project managers and integrating their accomplishment in the achievement of some overall organizational goal. General management is the management of the departments and the overall organization. Entrepreneurial management is similar to general management except that it stresses dealing with the formation, growth, and transformation of an organization.


Different From Functional or Separate Projects Organizations

A functional organization is structured by function in a hierarchical structure (the pyramid) with a boss at the top, workers at the bottom and middle managers in between. This severely limits the opportunity for managing. Each functional department approaches a project independently with a project engineer who coordinates the activities of his or her department for that project and then passes the project on to another department.

The functional organization is efficient, secure and works well. It is often somewhat rigid with a tendency to emphasize technical specialties over project needs. It sometimes results in less than satisfactory effectiveness.

A project organization is structured by project with a separate, independent team, led by a project manager assigned to each project. A small support staff is usually available at the organizational level to assist and monitor performance. The project teams are often internally organized by function and are totally responsible for their projects. The separate projects organization is usually very effective in accomplishing project objectives due to: (1) the singleness of purpose and responsibility of the project manager and his or her team, (2) their full control of the needed resources, and (3) the team spirit. Its weaknesses, on the other hand, are: (1) a lack of organizational continuity when projects close down, (2) duplication of facilities; (3) some rigidity in the use of personnel and, (4) almost total reliance on the abilities of one person — the project manager. It is often not very efficient in the use of resources.

The Two-Dimensional Matrix Structure

The matrix organization has both a vertical, hierarchical structure and a horizontal, project structure. It blends functional department management and project team management. The term “matrix management” refers to this structure and includes the management practices and employee attitudes that result from the structure and help make it work.

Each person in a matrix management organization works for two or more bosses — a department head and one or more project managers. This results in occasional problems with project team members sometimes caught in the middle of a conflict between a project manager and a department head.

In visualizing a matrix structure, one should consider a graduation of organizational structure from functional departments with no project coordinator nor sense of team effort on the left to independent teams with their own support services on the right. The matrix fills the broad area between and can vary from a weak matrix with a part-time coordinator and little else, to a strong matrix with a full-time project manager, separate project office and internal administration.

Diversity of Form

A matrix organization does not require that all work be done under both functional and project control. Some projects can be done by teams independent of the functional departments. Other projects or tasks can be done by the functional departments without benefit of a project team. Some departments (e.g. drafting) can continue as functional departments. Even a single project can be handled by all three types of structure, either at different points in time or at the same time for different tasks.

A matrix structure can also be “de facto”. In order to get critical work done, many supposedly pure functionally structured organizations work as an informal matrix structure.

Separate Project Managers For Matrix Management

Most of the literature refers to a project manager operating separately from the departments. These people are titled project managers, work strictly on projects, and are not assigned to a functional department but have their own project management department.

The author’s initial matrix management experience was with a consulting firm where the project managers came from one of the departments. All projects were first assigned to a department, either the department that brought in the work or the one with the major amount of work. The department manager then assigned a project manager. Upon being assigned to a project, the project manager and team members remained in their departments, usually continuing to perform some functional tasks within their department. Upon completion of a project, they resumed their normal functional tasks, if not reassigned to another project. More often, most would have a number of smaller, overlapping projects and would always be doing a mix of project work and functional tasks. The result is probably better than having a separate project management department as it: (1) encourages an interchange of ideas between managers, (2) forces a mutual dependency between project managers and department personnel, and (3) avoids elitism and jealousy between project and department.

When initiating a matrix structure, it may be best to initially have the project managers in a separate department under the supervision of an experienced projects (program) manager. Otherwise, the functional managers whose job it is to supervise the project managers may be too inexperienced at project management to give them proper supervision and assistance.

Performance of Work

The literature also assumes most of the work will be done by functional departments with only management functions provided by the project manager (and his/her team). This is usually a mistake as it does not foster a team spirit. Project team members may be physically located in the department spaces and accountable to their departmental manager for certain tasks and overall direction, but when working on a project, they should be answerable to that project manager and should think of themselves as being on his or her project team.

Program Management In A Matrix

Most organizations with more than a few projects will group them into programs for better multi-project management. If an organization has a broad mission with several distinct general objectives or goals, each goal will be associated with a program. The programs may be supervised by separate program managers or the department managers. This extra layer of work structure often allows better overall control by the organizational general manager and the program managers who are assigned to each program. Costs, time and resources can be budgeted and controlled at both the program level and the project level. If the programs accurately reflect the organization’s general objectives, they are more likely to be fulfilled.

As work progresses, some projects fall behind, go over budget, need additional resources, or lose importance. The program manager then changes priorities or schedules, and reassigns resources to maximize the overall program results.


Quite simply, the major factor in successful matrix management is people’s attitudes and expectations — the “culture” of the organization.

A sense of belonging and loyalty to the department must be supplemented by a sense of responsibility to the project. The best way to do this is to teach people that whenever they do any work on a project, they are part of the project team.

The second major attitude is one of cooperation with others to achieve both joint and individual goals. This is best fostered by having all personnel, including department heads, participate in some project teamwork. This forces them to depend upon other departments and reminds them of the need for cooperation. Having project managers come from the functional departments instead of a separate project management department also helps foster this attitude.

Multi-Dimensional Matrix Management

A matrix structure can have more than two dimensions. The third dimension can be the program managers. Some large consulting engineering firms have a third dimension consisting of discipline directors with firm-wide responsibility for technical aspects and marketing of all work within their discipline.

Another dimension may be geographic. Large national firms with several regional offices may split project responsibilities between several offices. Thus, a project in California under the responsibility of the San Francisco office may have the soils design done by the Denver office, sanitary design in Seattle, and construction management from San Francisco. The major advantage of a geographical matrix is the reduced need to staff-up and lay-off people at one office or attempt to relocate people around the country. The telephone and transportation costs increase dramatically, but these are more than offset by reduced, employee turnover, attendant learning time, etc.

Implementing A Matrix Structure

The current vogue in the management literature is that there is no ideal method of management: the best solution is contingent upon the key factors in the environment in which the solution will have to operate. Put simply: use whatever fits the situation.


Transition From Junior Engineer To Project Manager

The first step in the management of others is the management of one’s self. A matrix organization (and many project organizations) usually expects/demands a high degree of personal discipline and hence forces young engineers to plan and control their own work. When a junior engineer is assigned a task, he or she is (or should be) given a clear scope of work, a budgeted number of hours to be expended, and a desired completion date. The engineer is expected to perform within the objectives given or to provide a valid reason for not doing so. The management information system or an informal inquiry by the project manager will verify performance. Junior engineers who consistently meet their objectives will not only continue with the organization, they will soon be given an opportunity for more responsibility.

The second step in the gestation of a project manager is the technical supervision of an engineering technician or more junior engineer in the accomplishment of a task. This, of course, also occurs in a functional or project structure. Non-project work, like membership on internal committees, may also be assigned to improve management skills.

The third step is usually as a team leader, responsible for several people in accomplishing one or more tasks as part of a project. Examples are editing of the specifications, coordinating drafting, managing small sub-projects, etc.

The fourth and final step before becoming a project manager is acting as a project engineer. Usually this involves technical responsibility for the project with full responsibility for meeting the scope of work, but with less than full responsibility for cost and time performance or resource use. The project engineer usually has little or no client/user contact and no marketing responsibility. The project manager is responsible for administration, client contact and cost/time performance.

The author’s opinion is that a matrix structure is better for developing a junior engineer into a project manager. With the focus on meeting cost (labor hours), time and scope objectives, the junior engineer will be encouraged to control the portion of the work under his or her control. At the same time, there will be more support and supervision. Proficiency in managing will be gained much earlier than with another organizational structure.

Gradually Increasing Project Management Responsibility

New project managers should be gradually moved from a small, simple project with a lot of attention and support to larger, more complex and more critical projects, with little supervision. Mistakes made on the job in the learning process will therefore tend to be less serious and the young project manager will be continually challenged without a high probability of failure.

In a functional organization, project responsibility is not, of course, possible. In a separate project organization, the support and close supervision are often lacking so that it becomes a case of “sink or swim.” Matrix organizations not only can provide support and close supervision but also have greater flexibility in breaking a large project into several phases or smaller sub-projects. It can, therefore, have a greater number of small, medium and large projects and hence more opportunity to practice management skills.

The progression from project manager of small projects to manager of large projects is not only as project manager. Usually it includes assignments as a project engineer, team leader or assistant project manager on larger projects.

Management Style

The three general classifications of management style are authoritarian, consultative and participative. Functional management organizations often use an authoritarian management style. Separate project management can be any of the three but is often also authoritarian. Matrix management, however, tends to result in a consultative and even participative management style as opposed to authoritarian. It spreads and lowers the decision-making process.

The involvement in decision-making by many members of the organization leads to a greater awareness of the organization’s needs and the individual’s role in it. It also improves the quality of decisions since they are made closer to where the work is done and the impact of the decision is felt. Naturally, the individuals being consulted or participating in the decisions learn how to make better decisions without the serious failures that often occur if they had to wait for full responsibility before being given an opportunity to make decisions.

If an authoritarian, functional organization shifts to matrix management, the prevailing style of management will probably shift to consultative and to some extent participative. This will place considerable stress on existing managers whose very perception of themselves may be based on the authoritarian style. It is important to work closely with these existing middle managers to help them realize that they are not losing authority and control but rather will have more control.

Scheduling, Estimating and Control Skills

In addition to long-term strategic planning, matrix management requires extensive tactical planning or scheduling, accurate estimates of resource (manpower) needs, and control of their use. Good scheduling, estimating and control are, in fact, essential to minimize conflicts between project managers and department heads as one of the major problems of matrix management is the tendency to overwork the departments and create conflict over the use of resources (people, equipment and funds).

The initial project planning, scheduling, resource estimating and forecasting is done at the organizational or program level, just as in a functional organization. Also, monitoring of actual progress and resource use, adjustment of project priorities and reassignment of resources is done centrally. When a project manager is assigned however, one of the first jobs is to verify that the work plan, schedule and resource budget are adequate. As the project progresses he or she monitors actual progress and resource use, compares it with the plan and takes corrective action as needed. In the end, the project manager’s performance is measured in large part by how well the plan is met.

The result is that project managers, both in separate project and matrix structures, quickly learn how to schedule, estimate and control. The requirement to justify and share resources in a matrix environment, however, probably results in a greater expertise in resource management.

Unfortunately, most functional managers do not have adequate skills or experience in the techniques of scheduling, estimating and control. When a functional organization attempts matrix management, it must first train its managers in these techniques and implement procedures and systems to encourage their use.

Communication and Human Relations Skills

Unlike the separate project or functional manager, a matrix manager does not have direct control of the resources needed to accomplish his or her objectives. He or she must rely more on persuasion and other human relations skills to obtain the needed commitments and to motivate the project team. Thus, the matrix manager will have to achieve a higher degree of interpersonal skills than the separate project manager or even the functional manager. As one moves into general management, these interpersonal skills become extremely important.

A project management structure does not require sophisticated communication systems as the team is usually fairly small and all oriented towards the same objective. A functional organization requires a great number of formal communications — plans, schedules, budgets, and reports. A matrix organization requires even more sophisticated (but more informal) communication than a functional system. In fact, good communication is essential to the matrix concept. The importance of the informal communication system makes familiarity with the organization and other people in it a prerequisite to successful matrix management.

Matrix managers learn somewhat different communication skills than their counterparts in functional or separate project organizations. They tend to rely more on verbal, one-to-one conversation and less on written, formal reports.

Conflict Management

Conflict is inevitable. In fact, some is probably good for organizational health, if it does not lead to destructive response or excessive stress. When conflict is brought to the surface, it can be addressed, and hopefully resolved. The ability to do this is very helpful in the career of a manager.

Having two bosses is the major source of conflict in a matrix structure. When these bosses clash over an individual’s efforts, a great deal of stress can be placed on the individual. This can be very damaging if the bosses do not share adequate concern for the individual’s well-being.

Job Satisfaction

Matrix management offers greater opportunities to participate in decision-making plus a more versatile work experience. A matrix project manager can both manage and do technical work, depending on the size of the project. Even on larger projects, by breaking the work down into sub-projects and assigning team leaders to each sub-project, many administrative duties can be passed on to others, freeing the project manager to better manage and to act as a technical consultant to the project team or even participate in the work. The result is a higher degree of job satisfaction.

Ambiguity and Constant Change

It sometimes appears that we are hurtling towards a world of even faster change. Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, for example, emphasizes the stress that frequent change places on people. This same stress occurs in a matrix structure as it frequently changes in response to changing conditions.

The ambiguities of matrix management are another problem as reporting relationships and responsibilities are often not as clearly delineated as might be.

The combination of frequent change and ambiguity are too much for some people to handle. Consequently, they do not do well in a matrix structure. When implementing a matrix structure, it is important to maintain as much stability as possible within the organization.


Some organizations have trouble implementing matrix management due to the failure to hold someone accountable. In other organizations, one person (the project manager) is held accountable but cannot succeed due to lack of cooperation from the functional manager. The answer is to hold both accountable — the project manager for achieving project results and the functional manager for supporting the project. This is easier said than done, but a good program (e.g. multi-project) management system is one means to achieve it.

Another source of difficulty in implementing matrix management is an inadequate cost accounting system. It is nearly impossible for a project manager to accurately plan, estimate and control (or to learn how to) unless adequate feedback from a good cost accounting system is available. In addition to collecting and reporting costs by project, a good cost accounting system needs to summarize by activity or some other breakdown in the project (e.g. survey, preliminary design, final design, printing, etc), so that the project manager can control cost on a line item basis. It also should differentiate between cost categories (labor, materials and expenses, subcontract, capital cost, etc.). Finally, it should identify who committed the cost or charged time against the project.

Other Problems of Matrix Organizations

Few people realize how difficult it is to successfully implement a matrix reorganization. There are a number of inherent problems that must be recognized and addressed. Otherwise, a badly conceived and poorly implemented matrix will receive less than enthusiastic endorsement or even be abandoned. One of the best discussions of these problems, their, causes and treatment is the article titled “Problems of Matrix Organizations” by Stanley M. Davis and Paul R. Lawrence in the May-June, 1978, issue of Harvard Business Review. It is required reading for anyone contemplating matrix or dealing with an unsuccessful one.

Training Programs To Enhance The Development Process

Implementation of matrix management requires a major training effort both in project management skills and in familiarity with the matrix structure and style.

Business schools can provide either a degree program or courses and seminars of specific interest. Any organization interested in development of its managers should encourage them to pursue business studies. Unfortunately, except for a few specific courses, an MBA program tends to train people to be presidents rather than project managers.

Engineering schools have begun to offer a few courses in project management skills. They focus on either construction management or engineering management and are probably good at teaching the skills and concepts for project management.

Self-improvement is another good means of training. People can be encouraged to attend seminars or take correspondence courses — often packaged by the various professional societies. A good organization library also can provide an opportunity for those who are eager to advance.

In-house training programs can vary from being effective to marginal. One tool that worked well at one consulting firm where the author worked was a weekly brown bag lunch where an in-house or outside expert in either technical or managerial subjects would give a talk over the lunch hour to anyone interested in the subject. Good speakers and management support make this work. Another effective training tool was a monthly evening meeting of project managers. The firm would provide beer, fried chicken and a well-prepared discussion on some aspect of project management. The project managers gave up an evening, but everyone really enjoyed it. The result was not only a good learning experience but an opportunity to build esprit de corps.

On-the-job training is the most effective tool — if it consists of more than just dumping people into a new situation and letting them “sink or swim”. Although a formal training program with “tours” of the different departments is not essential, an informal system of giving new personnel an opportunity to manage a small project, while supporting them closely and moving them into ever-increasing responsibility is a very effective tool.


Eventually, the up and coming project manager will be promoted to functional management with responsibility for a department, program or product line. Management of a department in a matrix organization is similar to management in a functional organization. There are, however, some differences.

Depth of Management Talent

Due to the extensive management experience of the many project managers, a matrix organization will have a greater depth of management talent ready to move into functional and general management. There will, therefore, be stronger competition for each position. This also allows the organization to expand rapidly with growth and promotion from within. The organization’s culture is not so likely to be diluted by the hiring of managers from the outside.

Continued Project Involvement

The extent of project involvement of the functional manager will depend upon whether the project managers remain in the functional departments or assigned to a separate project management group.

If a separate project management group is used, the functional managers will have little project involvement and focus on administration. If, however, projects are assigned to departments and the project managers remain in the departments, the functional manager will have fewer administrative and coordination responsibilities since much of it will be done by the project managers. This will allow more time to plan and focus on the truly important tasks and to become involved in projects. Thus, the organization’s best people will not be lost to paperwork but can continue to contribute their technical expertise. The result will be a higher level of satisfaction for the functional manager. Also, they will not be so likely to become technologically obsolete.

Management of Managers

The supervision of subordinate managers is considerably different from the supervision of technicians and design engineers. If a functional manager in a matrix organization moves into general management, the experience of supervising project managers will be very helpful in managing the functional managers.

Management of Multiple Disciplines

As a project manager, one must supervise many different technical disciplines, an opportunity which is not available in a functional organization until one reaches general management. This forces the individual to become familiar with these disciplines at an early stage when the inevitable mistakes that are made will not have such a serious impact.

A functional organization provides promising functional managers an exposure to the different disciplines by rotating them through the departments. This is not very efficient due to the catch-up time in each department.

From Project Manager to Entrepreneur

The author’s own experience in moving directly from a matrix project manager to an entrepreneur illustrates an additional advantage to the individual as well as one of the risks to the organization. If there is lack of opportunity, inadequate recognition or personal conflicts with a supervisor, the individual is more capable of striking out on his or her own.

Experience in looking at the entire situation, familiarity with multiple disciplines (especially marketing and sales), awareness of cost/time/scope performance, and confidence in one’s self are essential and can be gained as a project manager in a matrix organization. In a functional organization, one does not have similar opportunities until reaching senior functional management or general management positions. In a separate projects organization (e.g. a construction company), there are even greater opportunities to learn general management and entrepreneurial skills. Those companies have learned to deal with the risks and to keep many of their best people. Matrix organizations must learn to do the same.


Advantages of Matrix Management

Matrix management offers an engineer excellent opportunities to advance toward management while enjoying job satisfaction and continued technical involvement. It also provides an organization the best possible vehicle to train and test future managers. Any organization requiring a great depth of management skill for rapid, sustained growth without losing control or its basic culture should consider it.

Difficulty of Implementation

The successful transition from functional to matrix management is extremely difficult. It requires not solely a restructuring of roles, responsibilities and procedures, but a fundamental change in people’s attitudes and expectations. It also requires a firm grasp of project management concepts and techniques, strong skills in communication and interpersonal relations, a comprehensive project/program management information system, a cooperative attitude, patience and hard work. Implementation must be flexible and evolve over time while maintaining stability.

Many problems are likely to be encountered when implementing or operating a matrix. The most serious are stress and destructive behavior resulting from frequent change, ambiguity and open conflict between two bosses. Others include a loss of self-image by authoritarian functional managers, frustration if growth opportunities are limited, anarchy, power struggles and inability to make decisions.


The author’s opinion is that the opportunities far exceed the difficulties. The challenge of developing and implementing a difficult but dynamic and effective organizational structure, the opportunity for many people to participate in management, and the potential for an extremely successful organization are all worth the risk.