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Best of PMTimes: Managing the Matrix – Work Streams and Projects

(Published: 5/12/2015)

Many projects are performed within a matrix in which the collaborative effort of several groups with different capabilities under the direct authority of managers of different organizations (e.g., functional departments, vendors, line or operational departments) who may have different priorities than the project or program manager.


Individuals and teams are aligned with two lines of accountability, a project line and a functional or operational line. An individual or team may be working simultaneously on multiple projects.

The relationship between “work streams” and projects in the matrix is a foundation for clearly identifying roles and responsibilities, managing expectations and establishing an effective project control reporting process.

What is a Work Stream?

The Business Dictionary defines a work stream as

“The progressive completion of tasks completed by different groups within a company which are required to finish a single project.”

A work stream may be the work of a functional area such as application development, training, business analysis, sales, product delivery, and engineering. It may also be an effort such as requirements definition which involves members of multiple groups, for example, in product development, marketing, product development, engineering, and manufacturing.

Functional groups, vendors, and operational departments may have multiple projects or processes that are purely internal to the group. For example, an IT group may have projects to develop or acquire software tools or a new methodology. The group may be serving multiple projects that are vying for the same resources.

An operational department like routing, customer service, accounts payable processing, etc. will have its day-to-day activities as its highest priority, over project priorities, even when the project is to improve the group’s own performance. For example, an operations group is often called upon to give up the services of key members in order to provide subject matter expertise on a project that has a long-term impact on the organization, and this may make operational performance suffer.



In the context of project and program planning and control the focus needs to be on the program and project (for simplicity we will refer to project to encompass both projects and programs). It is the project manager (PM)’s job to manage the coordination of the work streams contributing to the project. The focal point is the project.

At the same time, the PM must be sensitive to the perspectives of the contributing organizations and consider them in scheduling, risk assessment, staffing and quality management among other aspects of project planning and control. From a functional department’s or vendor’s perspective, there may be many projects that require their services and expertise. From an operational perspective, the project is a distraction from daily activities.

Related Article: Turning Bad Requirements Into Good Requirements


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Given these perspectives, it is necessary for upper management acting as sponsors to ensure that projects represent value to the organization and, therefore, warrant attention. They set the priorities and accept the trade-offs. They promote a common perspective that sees the big picture.


Work Stream Relationships

The work stream “owner” may be any person assigned as the work stream’s point person. The role is referred to by any number of names, including Lead, Manager, Coordinator or Owner. It is the work stream “owner’s” responsibility to coordinate work within the work stream and to work with the project manager in overall planning, providing estimates, resource commitments, and risk analysis. Once initial planning is done, the work stream owner is responsible for making sure the work assigned to their work stream is being accomplished and for regularly reporting to the project manager. The work stream owner is accountable to the Project Manager.

Work stream owners and their management must understand and commit to this relationship. Often, in matrixed environments, the role of the Project Manager is not given the level of authority required to get the job done effectively. This results in a “weak matrix” and, inevitably, to suboptimal performance and unnecessary conflict. In a healthy environment, the work stream owner “reports to” the PM and may also be responsible to and under the authority of a functional line manager or executive who is outside of the project.

This term “reports to” can cause confusion and conflict. Here, it means accountable to. It means that the person must inform the PM of activities performed (progress and status reports, issues, etc.) or to be performed (plans, estimates, etc.) within the project. In addition, the management of the groups providing resources to the work stream is obligated to report any changes that might affect the project and to ensure that the resources have a clear understanding of their responsibilities to the Project Manager.

The project encompasses all the work required to achieve project objectives, regardless of who performs the work.

The PM may or may not have any other authority but without the ability to get information and influence the quality of a work stream’s output, the PM cannot manage.


Work Streams and QC

Getting information and engagement in planning may be easy or not, depending on the character of the organization and the skill of the project manager in setting up an easy to use reporting mechanism and motivating the stakeholders to take part.

The realm of quality control and performance effectiveness is more complex than simply getting status reports. Ultimately, the PM must be able to assess the quality of deliverables and of performance in general and to act on the results.

The PM can delegate this responsibility to a Quality Assurance and Control work stream, but that works stream must be independent of the work stream whose work is being assessed. Further, there must be candid feedback regarding quality, and that feedback must be based on objective criteria.

To avoid conflict, the organization does well to educate everyone regarding the power of receiving candid and objective feedback and its relationship to continuous improvement. That’s a subject for another article.


Work Streams – Not Silos

The bottom line is that in complex projects, programs, and processes, work is performed by people in several organizations with different specialties. Managing in a matrix is efficient and can be effective if definitions and relationships are clear and mutually agreed upon.

Work streams are functional teams contributing to a project or business process. When the stream cuts itself off from the other work streams and thinks of itself as a fully autonomous independent entity, it turns into a silo. Silos are great for storing grain, but, in organizations, silos are dysfunctional.

Healthy work streams contribute to success. They recognize that their work is only of real value because it contributes to project success. Healthy work streams recognize that it is not enough to take in a set of requirements and pop out a result. Communication and collaboration with others is part of the job.

Consider the images conjured up by the words. If you are inside a silo, you have walls that keep you from seeing the big picture and keep outsiders from seeing what is going on within. If you are in a stream there is a sense of differentiation and identification with your group, but you can see out and those who are outside can see in. It is like multiple channels in a river, converging to make the river a mighty one.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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