How Organizational Structures Affect Projects and Project Management

It is true that the structure of an organization can have a major impact on project management.

Think about your own experience. Is it difficult to get traction on your projects? Are there numerous layers of authority that you have to navigate to get approvals for basic tasks? Does your budget get cut because of competition for limited funding? Do your projects lose out in favor of day-to-day routine operations? And you thought it was something you were doing, or failing to do! Well it may have been, but it’s more likely that you are feeling the effects of the organizational structure within which you work. Understanding your working environment better will help you to rise above organizational issues and smooth the way to successful project management.

By looking at three different organizational structures – functional, matrix and projectised – we will discover how each distinct organizational style affects project management.

  1. Functional Organizational Structure. These firms are organized into functional divisions based on primary functions such as engineering, human resources, finance, IT, planning and policy. Each different functional division operates independently and isolated groups of workers in a division report to a functional manager. The functional manager generally both allocates and monitors the work and carries out tasks such as performance evaluation and setting payment levels. In this model project managers have very limited authority. Functional organizations are set up for ongoing operations rather than projects and so this organizational structure is often found in firms whose primary purpose is to produce standardized goods and services.
  2. Matrix Organizational Structure. In a matrix organization control is shared. The project manager shares responsibility for the project with a number of individual functional managers. Shared responsibilities can include assigning priorities and tasks to individual team members. But functional managers still make the final decisions on who will work on projects and are still responsible for administration. Project managers take charge of allocating and organizing the work for the designated project team. In this type of structure there is a balance between ongoing operations and projects, so it is a common structure for organizations that have these dual roles. For instance, local body organizations that are responsible for both maintaining existing infrastructure (ongoing operations) and commissioning the construction of new infrastructure (projects) often have matrix structures.
  3. Projectised Organizational Structure. In a projectised organization the project manager has full authority over the project. This includes the authority to set priorities, apply resources, and to direct the work of the project team. All members of the team report directly to the project manager and everybody is assigned to a project. After completion of the project, resources will be re-assigned to another project. This type of structure is common in firms that work on size-able, long-term projects, such as in the construction industry.

Take a moment to reflect on which type of organizational structure you work in before we move on to discuss how these organizational structures affect projects. Then see if you recognize any of the issues raised.

So what are the implications for project management?

In a functional organization, projects that exist within a single functional division generate no particular organizational issues, but projects that cut across functional divisions can be challenging to manage. Why? Because the project manager has no direct functional authority and must obtain continual cooperation and support from functional managers of other divisions in order to meet project objectives. This can get complicated.

Because the matrix structure gives authority to both project managers and functional managers the outcome is to provide a more seamless division of labor and ultimately to build a stronger team culture. However, the potential for conflict between functional managers and project managers still exists because there is still resource conflict. Everyone who is on a project team has two bosses – their functional manager as well as their project manager.

In a projectised organization authority is centralized. Because projects are removed from functional divisions the lines of communication are shortened. Both these factors enhance the ability to make swift decisions. Project teams develop a strong sense of identity which in turn creates a high level of commitment from team members. Due to their involvement in consecutive projects of a similar nature projectised organizations can develop and maintain a long-term body of experience and skills in specialized areas.

It is clear that projectised organizations make it easier to run projects because the entire structure is set up for that purpose. But if you are managing a project within other organizational structures, then recognizing and understanding the impacts will raise your awareness of the potential project management pitfalls, so that you can be proactive about resolving them. Communication, conflict resolution and team building will be key to your success.