Planning a Software Project in a Matrix Environment

Project Team_Matrix Environment_ Project Mangement Planning a Software Project
People used to be managed very differently not so long ago. There was a clear, top-down approach of one person who managed a group of people. Direction and authority clearly followed these well-worn paths of command and control and people rarely deviated from the confines of this precise hierarchical management structure.

Time passed and it became clear that the complexities of planning any project, let alone managing or planning a software project, mandated a new way of managing people. Enter the project matrix structure. The matrix environment allows project teams to be temporarily assembled across functional business departments i.e finance, research and development, design, development. The project team brings together subject experts under the leadership of a project manager who is designated specifically to the effective management of the projects.

Planning a software project in a matrix environment enables subject matter experts to  work together on a project despite functional department and managerial boundaries. During the project team members are lead by the project manager, yet retain their departmental home and functional management report. Planning a software project in this matrix environment combines the best of both worlds. The following are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working in such an environment and what you can do to make the most of this working arrangement.

The Pros of Planning a Software Project in a Matrix Environment

There are a number of benefits of planning a software project in a matrix environment. For example:

  • You get a holistic view of the project

    There are innumerable moving parts when it comes to planning a software project. You need to pull together requirements, technical specifications, high level and low level design documentation, along with test plans, deployment plans, and a multitude of other documents. Including subject matter experts from each of the functional areas when planning a software project mitigates the risk of anything being overlooked. Your company’s software testing expert may recognize that this particular test cycle will take considerably longer due to additional integration work on the backend. Such knowledge may be easily overlooked by anyone other than the subject expert and have negative impact upon project scheduling.

  • Teams come together quickly

    Another benefit of planning a software project in a matrix organization is that teams can come together quickly. I used to work at a location that had a special project called a “dancing bear”. A “dancing bear” was an all-hands on deck, this is going to make-or-break the company type of project that required everyone’s full attention. This type of project was typically a proof of concept that would open the door for much bigger opportunities within the client’s organization. In a matrix organization this type of project was easier to pull off and implement. The best people that were available at the time would be pulled together in short order and come up with not only the best solution, but a completed project that would ultimately lead to more business for the company. This fluid movement of pulling people together quickly is not quite as easy to do in other types of management structures.

  • More buy in for the project from the functional teams

    How does this work? Let’s say there is a certain amount of financial documentation that you estimate needs to be done on the project. In order to determine the administrative workload, the project manager can seek recommendations from a team member from the finance department whose financial administrative expertise allows them to accurately determine the work that needs to be done. This ensures that both the project team and the finance department are aware of the time needed to accomplish task, and effectively mitigates the risk of requiring additional human resources during the project, especially of the subject experts that may already be allocated to departmental work.

The Cons of Planning a Software Project in a Matrix Structure

Now for the dark side of planning a software project in a matrix environment:

  • Conflicting priorities

    You may be in the throes of planning your project with a particular team member. The dancing bear is coming along nicely and you see a path to making this one perform brilliantly. Then your doorway darkens and it’s an even bigger dancing bear that just walked into the company. The resources you were counting on are now being pulled off of your project and onto someone else’s. Or, they may be split between the two projects to the detriment of both. Where do team member loyalties lie, with the project manager that gives them work to do, or the functional manager who also gives them work to do along with performance based pay reviews? Collaborative planning and clear communication become key in a matrix environment to establish the strong working relationships (between the project manager, functional manager, and team member) that project success in a matrix environment requires.

  • Different styles

    Team members that join the process of planning a software project with unfamiliar project team members will have to get used to each others various work styles. Some team members may be all about documentation and spend a lot of time in making sure it’s perfect before moving forward. Other team members may feel that documentation is a waste of time because the project changes so much and nobody reads it anyway. It’s up to the project manager to aggregate these different working styles and make the best of the situation so everyone can come up to speed in working together quickly.

  • May not see the forest for the trees

    One additional downside of planning a software project in a matrix environment is that team members may just focus on their piece of the puzzle and not see the big picture. They may be so used to something a certain way they may not realize that the picture has changed a bit and there may be a better way of doing something. It’s up to you as a project manager to communicate the bigger picture and make the most of your project teams various skills and talents.

Planning a software project in a matrixed organization can definitely be a positive experience that takes the best from a functional environment and a projectized environment and combines it into one approach. If you are mindful of the pitfalls you will be able to make the most of planning a software project in a matrixed environment and end up with a great finished product!

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