Implementing matrix management in a research and development environment


K.E. McCarney

Norwich-Eaton Pharmaceuticals

Matrix management has been heralded as one of the most beneficial and profitable organizational tools of the decade. To industries placing high emphasis on inventiveness and quick response to change, the matrix is one way of circumventing confining traditional organizational lines. The transition from a traditional organization to a matrix, however, necessitates considerable planning and foresight for total acceptance of the matrix by the organization. Such in-depth planning reaps benefits by rapidly incorporating the advantages of a matrix organization.

In a pharmaceutical R&D department considerable uncertainty exists with respect to product specifications and time required for development. Many projects are terminated or radically modified prior to completion for scientific reasons. Due to government regulations testing and reporting duties have increased, involving greater numbers of people in each project. For these reasons the matrix mode of operation was appealing. The advantages that it could offer in terms of quick response to change and greater centralization of information appeared attractive to this type of department.


Under the previous organizational system several development teams comprised of 10 to 15 persons were organized and their activities coordinated by a single individual. Team meetings were conducted primarily to convey status; little communication was evident between meetings and decision-making was directed through traditional channels in the hierarchy. In modifying the organization structure, several restrictions were inherent. Limited manpower resources and a multitude of projects meant that team members would continue to serve on more than one team at a time and would work on other projects. Due to the uncertainty present in pharmaceutical development and unsuitability of the industry for a fully project controlled organizational structure, full time project managers were not desirable. As an additional benefit, the use of part-time project managers would yield opportunity for more individuals to become involved in project management and increase their knowledge about the development process. In the new matrix system each project manager retained the full complement of his functional duties while assuming the responsibility for a specific project assignment. All functional reporting structures were retained while a new reporting relationship was assumed with the V.P. Development for activities related to project manager duties.

From the outset of the transition it was realized that proper definition of the project manager role was essential. A job description was prepared for the benefit of both project managers and the functional organization. This was followed by the preparation of written guidelines describing the responsibilities and authority of the project manager and team member.

Since team members in several instances would serve on more than one team, it was recognized that conflict over team meetings must be avoided. A central scheduling office was assigned the responsibility for insuring that meeting conflicts did not occur. It also provided planning support for the project managers. A priority listing of all projects was distributed so that overall development efforts would be consistent with organizational plans.


In addition to the recognized merits of matrix management, the introduction of project managers was intended to enhance the personal development of promising individuals in the corporation and provide opportunity for growth and knowledge. Individuals were identified, nominated and selected by upper management. Many of these persons possessed technical expertise or had been involved in the initial research which made them particularly well suited for their particular assignment. Individuals selected for project management duties come from all segments of the R&D organization and had Bachelors, Master, or Doctoral degrees.

Training for the new project managers was provided in several ways. Initially, a three-day project management course was conducted in-house for all R&D division directors, section chiefs and project managers. To obtain a wider knowledge of the industry, project managers were provided with a collection of government guidelines and publications. This was supplemented by attendance at a three-day course on regulatory applications.


Acceptance of the matrix into this R&D organization was facilitated for several reasons:

  1. Development teams were not a new concept and had been used previously to a lesser extent.
  2. PERT (Performance Evaluation and Review Technique) had been used in the organization for many years and was widely accepted.
  3. Team members continued to work on a variety of projects and were not separated from their functional units.

As noted previously, to acquaint functional managers with the matrix system a short project management course was conducted in-house. Supervisors were provided with the project managers’ guidelines and encouraged to circulate them in their departments.


To obtain maximum benefits from a matrix organization considerable support must be provided from upper management. The appointments of new project managers are signed by the Senior Vice President of R&D lending creditability to the tide of project manager. Project managers are frequently requested to make presentations and participate at upper management meetings.

Since many of the experiences and problems encoutered by project managers working within the organization are applicable to all projects, a monthly meeting is held with the V.P. Development and selected guests. Common concerns are expressed and experiences communicated during these meetings. Current articles about project management, team building and matrix management are circulated to project managers.


Through the period of transition into matrix management system the disadvantages of the organization concept were recognized. A primary emphasis was placed on communication within the organization. In a matrix organization the team member must communicate through both functional and project management channels. To minimize this problem, it was recommended that project managers receive copies of all correspondence and notification of all reports dealing with the project. Team members were encouraged to communicate directly with the project manager on an informal basis. Team meetings minutes and a monthly project summary were prepared and circulated to team members and functional managers.

Personal conflict between the project manager and team member was also an issue. This was minimized through efforts at team building. The project manager was also given the authority to refer areas of conflict to higher levels of management, providing the team member was informed and present at the meeting. Team members were encouraged to confer with their functional superiors frequently to avoid the classical “Two-boss Syndrome” conflicts. Attempts were made to divide responsibility for the project by noting that defining what activities and when were in the realm of the project manager; who and how were in the domain of the functional manager.


While still in its early stages the movement from a traditional organizational system to a matrix appears to be beneficial. Team meetings in general are shorter in length because informal communication allows for greater discussion and accelerated implementation of action plans agreed upon by team members and project manager outside of the meeting. Details of projects are retained and issues appear to be focused upon earlier in the project. Project termination decisions proceed more swifty putting less strain on the organization. Thus, for our R&D organization, the matrix has proved advantageous in promoting faster development, as well as enriching the personal growth of selected individuals.



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