Project Management Institute

Project managers are gaining power within matrix organizations

UP & DOWN

Paul C. Dinsmore Feature Editor

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This is the fourth in a series of articles related to “Power and Politics” in project management. Charles Teplitz and Christopher Worley share recent research results which shed new light on the trends in project management influence styles.—Paul C. Dinsmore

Charles J. Teplitz, PMP, Ph. D., University of San Diego

Christopher G. Worley, Ph. D., Pepperdine University

THE MATRIX ORGANIZATION

“Matrix” -this term conjures up many images in the minds of project managers. A major segment of the current project management literature has been dedicated to analyzing the pros and cons of the matrix organization. The matrix structure (as shown in Figure 1) was originally designed as a hybrid between the traditional functional organization and the more radical pure projectized organization. It was developed to permit greater control over projects being performed in the functional organization. Prior to its development, projects lacked the leadership needed to ensure on-time delivery within budget. In the new organizational structure of the matrix, a project manager is assigned to each project and given the responsibility of achieving the goals of the project as specified by the customer. Unfortunately, in most matrix organizations, the project manager is not given the formal authority to control the resources needed to complete the project. Without the power to control the resources, the project manager can do little to ensure successful completion of the project.

Inmost matrix organizations, power lies almost entirely with the functional managers. They have control over their employees' assignments, hours, pay, vacations, promotion, etc. This “weak” matrix organization affords functional managers tremendous power over their employees and control over what work is performed and when. Traditionally, project managers within weak matrix organizations complain that without sufficient power they cannot compete against functional managers for scarce resources. The question becomes “how and from where is power obtained?”

Matrix Organization Structure

Figure 1. Matrix Organization Structure

POWER

In an oft quoted article, French and Raven [1] suggest fives bases of power within an organization: formal authority, reward power, coercive power, expert power and referent power. Formal authority is derived from position within an organization's formal hierarchy. Supervisors, for example, have the formal authority to require subordinates to perform certain tasks. Reward power as well as coercive power refers to the ability to control pay increases, promotions or challenging work on the one hand and the ability to administer sanctions or penalties or without rewards on the other. Expert power accrues to individuals who possess specialized knowledge or could control the flow of information. Finally, referent power is a function of the individual's personality or the extent to which others look up to the individual.

The sources of power given to the project manager include budgets (which make the functional manager dependent on the project manager as a source of funds) and customer contacts (which allow the project manager to reduce uncertainty or control important information). In addition, the project manager may create expert power by possessing skills, knowledge and experience that can't be easily replaced. Despite these sources of power and influence available to the project manager, the sum of the project manager's power appears to be less than the power accruing to the functional manager. The project manager's problem lies primarily in their almost complete lack of formal authority or enough reward or coercive power to overcome the carrots and sticks that functional managers enjoy in the matrix.

In an effort to document this imbalance in power between functional and project managers, Thamhain and Gemmill polled a number of project team members back in 1974 [2]. When asked to “rank, in order of importance, the reasons they usually comply with the requests of project managers,” most cited “formal authority” as the primary incentive. The top eight sources of power suggested by the participants are listed in Table 1.

Thus, according to the study, project personnel viewed formal authority as the most important reason for complying with the requests of a project manager. This is not a surprising result, but one creating an intriguing dilemma. Although formal authority is the most important reason for complying with a project manager's request, it is also the least likely source of power to be available to a project manager within a weak matrix organization. It is no wonder that the most common complaint by project managers is that they lack the formal authority to govern members of the project team.

Table 1. Thamhain and Gemmill Study Rankings

Item Source of Power Rank
Formal Authority Formal 1
Work Challenge Reward 2
Expertise Expert 3
Future Work Reward 4
Salary Reward 5
Promotion Reward 6
Friendship Referent 7
Pressures/Penalties Coercive 8

PROJECT MANAGEMENT - 1990s

The last two decades have seen some dramatic changes in the field of project management:

  • Project management has become a recognized profession, thanks to the efforts of PMI,
  • The matrix organization has endured and matured, and
  • Educators, theorists and professionals have discussed, debated, and publicized the benefits of proper project management.

These factors and others most certainly have changed the ability of project managers to successfully complete projects on time, within budget, and according to specifications. In an effort to determine if project managers have gained power within the weak matrix organization relative to their counterparts of 1974, a survey comparable to Thamhain and Gemmill's was performed.

In 1990, a University of San Diego MBA class in project management, with the assistance of the San Diego Chapter of PMI, surveyed several hundred project managers and project team members. Respondents were from aerospace/defense, public utilities, government/military organizations, and the construction industry, with 40 percent of the responses coming from project managers. Since 60 percent of the survey participants worked in a matrix organization some very relevant results were obtained.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to create a “list of six items that help a project manager do his/her job better” or the extent to which they were “helpful to the project manager in achieving project success.” The list consisted of:

  • The project manager's formal authority (authority)
  • The project manager's expertise (expertise)
  • The possibility that the project manager could affect promotions or salary increases (reward)
  • The project manager's ability to assign professionally challenging work (challenge)
  • The project manager's reputation (reputation)
  • The project manager's ability to apply pressure or use penalties (coercive)

Each of the items was to be rated on a 5-point scale ranging from (1) not at all helpful to (5) most helpful. These six items were selected in an effort to parallel the items used in the Thamhain and Gemmill study so that some sense of change over time might be inferred. The study resulted in some very interesting observations.

Figure 2 presents the above helpfulness ratings obtained from the project managers and project personnel interviewed. Surprisingly both groups ranked the six items in the same order. In fact, the almost identical averages for both groups is striking. There appear to be very similar perceptions about the helpfulness of these sources of power. The most helpful source of influence to project managers, as rated by project managers and project personnel, is expert power. The second most helpful source of power is reputation or referent power and the third most helpful source of power is the ability to assign challenging work. These top-rated sources of power are quite different from the choices project personnel listed as the most important reason for complying with a project manager's request in the Thamhain and Gemmill study(see Table 1).

Project Manager Ratings vs Project Personnel Ratings

Figure 2. Project Manager Ratings vs Project Personnel Ratings

HOPE FOR THE PROJECT MANAGER

If the results of the current survey are any indication, there is hope for the project manager based in a matrix organization. While formal authority is still a dream of the future in most organizations, power and influence are available today via the expertise and experience of the seasoned project manager. It appears that project managers have successfully cultivated alternative sources of influence. Technical and organizational expertise are two sources of influence readily available to project managers, while expert power is readily available through the project manager's background and experience. In addition, solid reputation accrues from not only technical achievements but also from successful past projects and longevity As one of the students involved in the survey observed:

[While] project managers tend to feel that they could use a little more formal authority, this is not really a hindrance to their projects. They believe that their power, and therefore their ability to influence and control their project, is much more dependent on their expertise and their reputation. Therefore, they feel no compelling need for more formal authority to make their project effective because they do not rely on authority to influence.

REFERENCES

1. French, J.RP. and B. Raven. 1959. “The Bases of Social Power,” in Derwin Cartwright (ed.) Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press.

2. Thamhain, Hans J. and Garry R. Gemmill. 1974. Influence Styles of Project Managers: Some Performance Correlates. Academy of Management Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 216-224.

Note: Watch in a future PMI for the complete technical discussion of this research.

Charles J. Teplitz is professor of project and operations management a the University of San Diego School of Business Administration and is serving as the director of the university's Institute for Project Management. He received his doctor of business degree in operations and logistics from Kent State University and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). He is president of the San Diego Chapter of PMI and is an active participant on the Education Committee of PMI

Charles J. Teplitz is professor of project and operations management a the University of San Diego School of Business Administration and is serving as the director of the university's Institute for Project Management. He received his doctor of business degree in operations and logistics from Kent State University and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). He is president of the San Diego Chapter of PMI and is an active participant on the Education Committee of PMI.

Christopher G. Worley is assistant professor of business strategy at Pepperdine University. He has held positions in management and project management with a number of organizations including Pepsico, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Science Foundation, and has been a management consultant for many years. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California

Christopher G. Worley is assistant professor of business strategy at Pepperdine University. He has held positions in management and project management with a number of organizations including Pepsico, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Science Foundation, and has been a management consultant for many years. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

FEBRUARY 1992 pm network

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