Project manager--the systems integrator

University of Southern California

It is a management axiom that the overall job of every manager is to create within the organization an environment which will facilitate the accomplishment of its objectives (7). Certainly the job of the project manager fits this role very well. In addition, every manager is responsible for the generally accepted managerial functions of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. Since every manager has these functions, how does the job of the project manager differ from that of the line or discipline manager?

The project management concept is based on vesting in a single individual the sole authority for the planning, resource allocation, direction and control for the accomplishment of a single, time- and budget-limited enterprise. But this statement does not indicate any major difference between the job of the project manager and the line or discipline manager.

The Project Manager’s Problem

The project manager has one particular problem which is intensified in comparison with the similar problem of the line or discipline manager. Any complex project must be subdivided into tasks that are capable of accomplishment. The result is a multitude of separate tasks. These tasks are then performed by specialized functional or discipline-oriented organizations as appropriate. The resulting complex matrix organization gives the project manager many more organizational and project interfaces to manage. Archibald indicates that “the basic concept of interface management is that the project manager plans and controls (manages) the points of interaction between various elements of the project, the product, and the organizations involved (1).

These interfaces are a problem for the project manager, since whatever obstacles he encounters, they are usually the result of two organizational units going in different directions. An old management cliche, says that all the really difficult problems occur at organizational interfaces. The problem is complicated by the fact that the organizational units are usually not under his direct management, and some of the important interfaces may be outside of his company or enterprise.

Interface Management

Interface management consists of identifying, documenting, scheduling, communicating, and monitoring interfaces related to both the product and the project (1). Interfaces are of many kinds. Archibald divides them into 2 types — product and project, and then further divides them into subgroups, of which management interfaces are a major division (1). The problem of the overall project/functional interface is thoroughly discussed by Cleland and King who point out the complementary nature of the project and the functional or discipline-oriented organizations. “They are inseparable and one cannot survive without the other.” (3).

Project management, however, is more than just this management interface, it involves three types of interfaces which the project manager must continually monitor for potential problems:

1) Personal Interfaces — These are the “people” interfaces within the organization which are working to carry out his project. Whenever two people are working on the same project we have a potential for personal problems and even conflict. If the people are both within the same line or discipline organization, the project manager has limited authority, but he can demand that the line supervision resolves the personal problem or conflict. If the people are not in the same line or discipline organization, the project manager finds himself in the role of a mediator, with the ultimate alternative of insisting that line management resolves the problem or removes one or both of the individuals from his project team. Personal interface problems become even more troublesome and difficult to solve when they involve two or more managers.

2) Organizational Interfaces — Organizational interfaces are the most troublesome since they involve not only people but also varied organizational goals, and conflicting managerial styles and aspirations. Each organizational unit has its own objectives, its own disciplines or specialties, and its own functions. As a result of these differences in organizational units, each has its own jargon, often difficult for other groups to understand or appreciate. It is thus apparent that misunderstanding and conflict can easily occur at the interfaces. These interfaces are more than purely management interfaces since much day-to-day contact is at the working level. Purely management interfaces exist when important management decisions, approvals or other actions will affect the project. Organizational interfaces also involve units outside the immediate company or project organizations such as the customer, subcontractors, or other contractors on the same or related systems.

3) System Interfaces — System interfaces are the product, hardware, facility, construction, or other types of non-people interfaces inherent in the system being developed or constructed by the project. These will be interfaces between the various subsystems in the project. The problem is intensified because the various subsystems will usually be developed by different organizational units. As pointed out by Archibald (1) these system interfaces can be actual physical interfaces existing between interconnecting parts of the system, or performance interfaces existing between various subsystems or components of the system. System interfaces may actually be schedule milestones involving the transmission of information developed in one task to another task by a specific time, or the completion of a subsystem on schedule.

The project manager’s problem is that of interface management. What he does to solve his problem can be described by the more general term — systems integration.

The Integration Process

Systems integration is related to what Koontz and O’Donnell call “the essence of management-coordination, or the purpose of management is the achievement of harmony of individual effort toward the accomplishment of group goals” (8). However, doesn’t every manager have this function? Yes, but the project manager has to be preoccupied with it. The project manager’s major responsibility is assuring that a particular system or activity is assembled so that all of the components, parts, subsystems and organizational units fit together as a functioning, integrated whole according to plan. Carrying out this responsibility comprises the function of systems integration. Integration is an action that is important to the success of any project whether hardware is involved or not. Any project involving many people, many organizational units, and many subsystems must be carefully and thoroughly integrated if the system is going to fit together as projected.

The management function of integration was identified and described by Lawrence and Lorsch. They pointed out that with the rapid advances in technology and the increased complexity of systems to be managed, there is an increased need both for greater specialization (differentiation) and for tighter coordination (integration) (9,10). An effective manager has a need for both; however, since these two needs are essentially antagonistic, one can usually be achieved only at the expense of the other (9,10). It can be described as a trade-off between these two needs as shown in Figure 1.

Measuring Managerial Performance

FIGURE 1. Measuring Managerial Performance

It has been suggested that the ideal high performance manager falls on the arrow midway between differentiation and integration, and probably is typical of high performance top management. It is also true that line or discipline management usually falls closer to the differentiation arrow, and that the project manager falls closer to the integration arrow. This model illustrates the need for the project manager as integrator.

The role of the project manager in the matrix organization has been analyzed by Galbraith (5,6), Lawrence and Lorsch (9,10,11,12) and Davis and Lawrence (4). They point out that the horizontal communication in a matrix organization requires an open, problem-solving climate. However, as pointed out by Galbraith (5,6), when the sub-tasks in an organization are greatly differentiated, a matrix structure may be required to achieve integration. The integrator coordinates the decision processes across the interfaces of differentiation. The project manager as the integrator is necessary to make the matrix organization work.

Problem solving and decision making are critical to the integration process since most project problems occur at subsystem or organizational interfaces. The project manager is the only person in the key position to solve such interface problems. The project manager provides “(1) a single point of integrative responsibility, and (2) integrative planning and control” (2). The project manager is faced with three general types of problems and the subsequent necessity for decision making:

1) Administrative problems usually involving the removal of road blocks or the setting of priorities. A major effort is usually necessary to resolve organizational conflicts involving people, resources or facilities.

2) Technical problems which necessitate making key decisions, deciding on scope changes, and making key trade-offs among cost, schedule or performance. Decisions are necessary to select between technical alternatives which impact project performance.

3) Customer or client problems which involve interpretation of and conformance to specifications and regulatory agency documents.

It is just the first step for the project manager to recognize that his primary job is that of integrator. It is then important that he has a good idea as to how to accomplish the total process of integration. What exactly should he do to assure that the process of integration takes place?

The Critical Actions of Integration

The integration process is difficult to separate from general good management practice. However, the integration process consists of a number of critical actions which the project manager must initiate and continually monitor. In most cases the project manager is the single point of integrative responsibility, and is the only person who can initiate these actions. Among the most important of these actions are:

 1. Plan for integration.

 2. Develop integrated work-breakdown structure, schedule and budget.

 3. Continually review and update project plan.

 4. Assure project control and adherence to project plan.

 5. Assure design for an integrated system.

 6. Resolve conflict situations.

 7. Remove roadblocks.

 8. Set priorities.

 9. Make administrative and technical decisions across interfaces.

10. Solve customer or client problems.

11. Assure that project transfer takes place.

12. Maintain communication links across interfaces.

Plan for Integration

Integration doesn’t just happen — it must be planned. The project manager must develop a detailed planning document that can be used to get the project initiated, and to assure that all project participants understand their roles and responsibilities in the project organization.

The project manager is the only person in that key position having an overview of the entire system, hopefully from its inception, and can foresee potential interface or other integration problems. After identifying the interfaces the project manager can keep a close surveillance on them to catch and correct any integration problems when they first occur. Particularly important in the project plan is a clear delineation of the project requirements for reporting, hardware delivery, completion of tests, facility construction and other important milestones.

An important part of the project plan should be the integration plan. This plan may even be a separate document if a single department or even a separate contractor is responsible for project integration. In any case, the integration plan should define and identify all interface problems, interface events, and interrelationships between tasks and hardware subsystems. The integration plan should then analyze the interrelationships between tasks and the scheduled sequence of events in the project.

Develop Integrated Work-Breakdown Structure, Schedule and Budget

The most important part of a project plan is an integrated work-breakdown structure, schedule and budget. Whatever type of planning and control technique is used, all the important interfaces and interface events must be identified. Interface events such as hardware or facility completions will be important project milestones. The project network plan must be based on the interface events in order to facilitate analysis of the entire project on an integrated basis. Resource allocation and reporting periods can then be coordinated with interface events, and schedules and budgets can be designed on an integrated basis.

Continually Review and Update Project Plan

The project manager must continually review and update both the administrative and technical portions of the project plan to provide for changes in scope and direction of the project. He must assure that budget and resource requirements are continually reviewed and revised so that project resources are utilized in the most effective manner to produce an integrated system.

Assure Project Control and Adherence to Project Plan

The most complete and well integrated project plan is worthless if no one uses it. Only the project manager can assure that every task manager is aware of his role and his responsibilities in project success. But continuous follow-up by the project manager is necessary to assure adherence to the project plan, and awareness of any necessary revisions.

Assure Design for an Integrated System

The design step is extremely critical since integration doesn’t just happen, it must be designed into the system. Therefore the project manager must exercise considerable influence during the design phase to assure that interfaces are recognized and that the system is designed as an integrated whole. Subsystem designers must work closely with other subsystem designers and the overall system designers to assure complete integration.

Large aerospace projects have often been fortunate enough to afford the luxury of an integrating contractor. This contractor would plan the design and hardware development phases so as to assure effective systems integration. They would prepare an integration plan which would serve as a guide for the other system contractors in designing, developing, testing and manufacturing the subsystems. The integrating contractor would have responsibility for assembling the overall system. An example would be the development by separate contractors of three separate stages and a warhead by a fourth contractor. A fifth contractor would serve as the systems integrator, guiding the four contractors throughout the development project.

Resolve Conflict Situations

It is inevitable that problems occur at organizational and subsystem interfaces. These problems may or may not result in actual open conflict between individuals or organizations. A common situation is personal conflict between the two managers involved at the interface. Conflict situations result primarily from the concerned groups or managers losing sight of the overall project goals or having differing interpretations of how to get the job accomplished. The project manager must continually be on the lookout for potential and real conflict situations and resolve them immediately.

Remove Roadblocks

Roadblocks are inevitable in a complex organization, and the inevitable result of conflict situations. Resolving the conflict situation will eliminate many roadblocks, but there are always other roadblocks set up intentionally or unintentionally by managers and other personnel not directly involved with the project. These roadblocks may be the result of conflicting needs for resources and personnel, or conflicting priorities for the use of facilities and equipment. Administrative roadblocks often occur because managers outside the project do not understand or sympathize with the project manager’s urgency. Such roadblocks are difficult to deal with, and the project manager may be forced to go to top management to get a satisfactory resolution.

Set Priorities

In order to resolve or prevent conflict situations the project manager is continually faced with the problem of setting priorities. There are two types of priorities that concern the project manager:

1) The overall company or organizational priorities which rate his project needs in relation to other projects with the organization, and

2) The priorities within his project for the utilization of personnel, equipment and facilities.

The first type of priority may be beyond the control of the project manager, but it is a problem with which he must be continually concerned. Pity the poor project manager who is so busy getting the job done that he forgets to cement his relationships with top management. The result may be a low project priority that dooms his project to failure. The second type of priority is within the project organization and therefore within the control of the project manager. These priority problems must be handled on a day-to-day basis, but in a manner that will promote the integration of the system.

Make Administrative and Technical Decisions Across Interfaces

The project manager must recognize and solve the critical technical and administrative problems and make the critical decisions that arise during the course of a project.

Solve Customer or Client Problems

It is obviously very important to assure that the customer or client by kept happy. To do this the project manager must keep him thoroughly informed both as to the technical status and the schedule/budget status of the project. Top management looks to the project manager as the primary contact with the customer or client, and expects that these relationships be open, honest and on a friendly basis. The project manager is a very real representative of top management.

Assure that Project Transfer Takes Place

Project transfer is the movement of a project through the project organizations from the conceptual phase to final delivery to the customer. Project transfer doesn’t just happen, it must be carefully planned and provided for in the scheduling and budgeting of the project. The project manager has the responsibility of assuring that project transfer takes place without wasteful effort and on schedule. The steps in a typical project are shown in Figure 2.

The movement of the project from block to block involves crossing organizational interfaces, an action which must be forced if it is to happen on schedule. The basic problem is that of making certain that the project is transferred quickly, without organizational conflict, without unnecessary redesign or rework, and without loss of relevant technology or other information. Experience has shown that the best method of assuring effective project transfer is to utilize people who can move with the project across organizational interfaces. The project manager has two alternatives to facilitate project transfer; (1) The designation of suitably qualified personnel who can move forward with the project, i.e. change their role as indicated by the left to right dashed arrows. (2) The utilization of personnel who can move backward in the organization and serve as consultants or active working members of the project team. When the project moves forward they serve as transfer agents in moving the project forward in the organization. Various possible personnel transfers are shown by the right to left solid arrows in Figure 2. Great importance must be placed in having customer, manufacturing and/or construction representatives take part in the design phase.

Project Transfer

FIGURE 2. Project Transfer

The Project Manager as Communications Expediter

FIGURE 3. The Project Manager as Communications Expediter

Maintain Communication Links Across Interfaces

The last of the integration actions, that of constantly maintaining communication links, is perhaps the most difficult and troublesome because it involves the necessity for considerable “people” skill on the part of the project managers. Most project managers find that they spend at least half of their time talking to people — getting information, clarifying directives, and resolving conflict and misunderstanding. Much of this time is involved with project manager’s critical responsibility for maintaining all communication links both within and outside his project in order to assure project integration. Internal communication links must be maintained between each subdivision of the project, and the project manager must make sure that all of his team members talk with each other. In addition, the project manager is personally responsible for maintaining communication linkages outside his project. Many of the external communication links can be personally expedited by the project manager, and in most cases the communication consists of written documents.

Communication linkages internal to the project, however, must function continuously, with or without documentation, and whether the project manager is personally involved or not. These internal communication linkages are most important to the health of the project since they involve the technical integration of the subsystems of the product or project. However, there are usually very real barriers to effective communications across any two such subsystem interfaces. In order to assure that problems don’t accumulate and build up at these interfaces, the project manager must act as a transfer agent or a communications expediter. The model shown in Figure 3 illustrates the interface problem.

The project manager must serve as the bridge to make sure that communication barriers do not occur. Communication barriers can be caused by a variety of circumstances and occurrences which the project manager must watch for. A communication barrier may or may not result in actual conflict depending upon the individuals involved.

The project manager is the one person always in a position to expedite communication linkages. He can be considered to be a transfer agent in that he can assume that the communication link is completed by transferring information and project requirements across the interface. Considering the number of interfaces in a complex, multi-disciplinary matrix-organized project, this process becomes a major effort for the project manager. The only saving grace is that many of these interfaces will be trouble free with good communications, at least the problems will not all occur at the same time.

Communication barriers may be caused by a variety of circumstances and occurrences. Some of the causes of communication barriers are:

1) Differing perceptions as to the goals and objectives of the overall system will cause problems. Lack of understanding of project objectives is one of the most frequent and troublesome causes of misunderstanding. It can be directly attributed to insufficient action on the part of the project manager, since he has the major responsibility for defining project objectives. Even when these objectives are clearly stated by the project manager, they may be perceived differently by various project team members.

2) Differing perceptions of the scope and goals of the individual subsystem organizations can likewise restrict communication. Again it is the responsibility of the project manager to clarify these problems, at least as to how they impact his project.

3) Competition for facilities, equipment, materials, manpower and other resources can not only clog communication routes but can eventually lead to conflict.

4) Personal antagonisms or actual personality conflicts between managers and/or other personnel will block communications flow. There may also be antagonism toward the project manager by line managers who perceive a threat to their authority or their empire.

5) Resistance to change or the NIH (not invented here) attitude may also detrimentally affect communication links between organizational units.

As indicated in Figure 4, the project manager has four important communication links: (1) upward to top management, (2) downward to the people working on the project, (3) outward to line managers and other projects at the same level in management, and (4) outward to the customer or client. The project manager has a major responsibility for maintaining communications with the chief executives in his organization. They must be provided with timely, up-to-date progress reports on the technical and financial status of the project. Similar reports must be provided the client or customer particularly if the customer is outside the company (i.e. the government).

The other important communication link is with the people working on the project. The project manager must keep them informed by means of project directives and personal communications. In addition, there is a continual stream of reports from the discipline/line-organization manager and specialists working on the project. Many of these reports concern details and the reports can be evaluated by administrators and assistant project managers. However, the ultimate decisions as to the worth of the report, and as to whether it should be included in progress reports to the customer and/or top management, is in the hands of the project manager. His communication skills therefore must include the ability to accurately and rapidly evaluate, condense and act on information from many sources.

Attenuation in these communication links at the organizational interfaces must be minimized. This means that the project manager must have an open line to top management. Conversely he cannot have too many line managers interpreting his instructions and project goals to the people working on the project. Without open communication links, the project manager will surely fail. There are also a number of important communication links outside the scope of the project. The four most important such links are shown by the dashed arrows in Figure 4. The project manager has to recognize the existance and the necessity for these communication links. Rather than fight them, he should endeavor to make use of these relationships.

The Project Manager’s Communication Links

FIGURE 4: The Project Manager’s Communication Links


Systems integration consists of assuring that the pieces of a project come together at the right time and that it then functions as an integrated unit. However, to accomplish the integration process, all the various types of interfaces must be monitored and controlled, because integration, for the most part, is just another way of saying interface management. In addition, the number of interfaces can increase exponentially as the number of organizational units increase, and the life of the project manager can become very complex.

It makes little difference whether “the system” is a missile, a nuclear power plant, a petroleum refinery or a transportation system, the principles of systems integration are applicable. Similarly, it makes little difference whether the project manager has a pure project organization or is in a matrix organization, his integration function is the same. Although his interface problems are greatly intensified in a matrix organization.

A number of positive actions that the project manager must make to assure that integration takes place have been suggested. The most important of these actions is that of maintaining communication links across the organizational interfaces. Proving once again that the principle function of the project manager is to serve as a catalyst to motivate his project team.


 1. Archibald, Russell D., Managing High-Technology Programs and Projects. New York: John Wiley and Sons (1977), p.66.

 2. Archibald, p.5.

 3. Cleland, David I., and William R. King, Systems Analysis and Project Management. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. (1975) 2nd Edition, p.237.

 4. Davis, Stanley M. and Paul R. Lawrence, Matrix. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1977.

 5. Galbraith, Jay, Designing Complex Organizations. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1973.

 6. Galbraith, Jay, Organization Design. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1977.

 7. Koontz, Harold and Cyril O’Donnell, Principles of Management: An Analysis of Managerial Functions. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. (1972), p.46.

 8. Koontz and O’Donnell, p.50.

 9. Lawrence, Paul R., and Jay W. Lorsch, Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration. Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1967.

10. Lawrence, Paul R., and Jay W. Lorsch, “New Management Job: The Integrator.” Harvard Business Review November-December, 1967, pp. 142-151.

11. Lawrence, Paul R., and Jay W. Lorsch, Developing Organizations: Diagnosis and Action. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1969.

12. Lorsch, Jay W., and John J. Morse, Organizations and their Members: A Contingency Approach. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, pp.7980.



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