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Collaborative Relationships Between Project and Functional Managers

This article addresses the project manager/functional manager relationship with an emphasis on collaboration, reporting, expectations, and empathy.


One of the nice things about PM is that the principles don’t change much over the years. One of the disheartening things is that the problems also don’t seem to change. Collaboration remains a key to the wellbeing of organizations, particularly, the collaboration between project managers (PMs) and functional managers (FMs). It is still a challenge that hinges on clarity, communication, understanding, and empathy.


Over the years there has been continued interest in a paper I wrote 25 years ago, The Project Manager/Functional Manager Partnership[1]. The key point then as now is that there is a need for clarity regarding roles and responsibilities, priorities, and communication protocols regarding commitments and status.  Clarity leads to understanding, hopefully, resulting in empathy – a sense of feeling for others.


Roles and Responsibilities

The role of the project manager focuses on the accomplishment of project objectives – getting the work done on time, within budget to deliver a quality outcome.

The role of the functional manager, a manager of a department usually associated with a specific discipline,  is to ensure that properly trained and well motivated resources (people) are available for project work. Some FMs lead departments that perform the work as a service, while others provide resources to be directly managed by project managers.

For example, the manager of a project management office is responsible for making sure that project managers are available for assignment to projects. Those PMs report directly to a program manager or steering committee with regard to project related activities.


The manager of business analysts provides her department’s people for work on projects and programs. The BAs typically report to the project manager. A Quality Assurance manager provides testing services as well as quality management standards and procedures, and oversite in the form of audits. Testers typically report directly to the FM and not the PM. Other functional managers provide engineers, procurement experts, attorneys, and more.

The manager of a software development department may be responsible for providing programmers to work on projects and ongoing system maintenance activities. Or they may be responsible for managing the programmers for the delivery of software for projects.


Reporting To

Regardless of whether the task is to provide people or services, functional managers “report to” project managers in the same way that a contractor reports to a client.

The idea of what “reporting to” means is a point of conflict between FMs and PMs. Commonly the term means that there is a hierarchy in which the person reporting to the other is under the authority of the other.


In project work, the FM does not report to the PM in that way. The PM does not have the authority to tell the FM what to do and how to do it. But the FM does have the responsibility to tell the PM what is going on, to provide information regarding plans, estimates, projections, status, and changes to resource availability.

Part of the needed clarity is about how and when this reporting will be done. Perhaps the most critical part of this reporting process is notification of changes to commitments.


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In healthy organizations FMs take part in project planning. They provide estimates and resource availability information. Where there is a well-functioning project portfolio management process, there is clarity about which projects are to be initiated when. This clarity comes from the knowledge of functional resource availability as well as the priority of each project.

So the FM not only reports to the PMs that he/she/they  serves but also to the portfolio manager. Whenever there is a change to resource availability it will impact project performance.


PM as Client

I find the analogy between FM and contractor to be helpful. A contractor knows that satisfying the client is the most important part of the job. If the client is not satisfied the contractor will suffer. Rational and empathetic clients will understand the contractor’s situation, protect themselves by being realistic in their expectations, and creating agreements that include provisions for both penalties and flexibility.

The FMs that treat the PMs their departments serve as clients deserving quality service will add greater value to their organizations and will better serve their own staff.


The FM’s Situation

The FM and the savvy PM know that there are multiple “clients” vying for the same resources. The FM needs to satisfy them all. Just like some clients, some PMs try to ignore this reality, making themselves believe that they are the only one.

Just like some contracting firms, some FMs overpromise, often caving into unrealistic demands and putting themselves and their resources under unnecessary pressure.

This leads to unreasonable irrational expectations. And irrational expectations lead to conflict, overwork, stress, burnout and missed deadlines.


That is where understanding and empathy comes into play. Effective collaboration is based on the understanding of the other’s situation leading to the ability to maintain rational expectations. This doesn’t mean to be “soft” and allow oneself to be taken advantage of. It means being reasonable and rational.

The FM needs to understand the PMs situation. If the project is behind schedule because functional resources or services are not delivered as expected, the PM will be accountable.

The PM needs to understand the FMs situation. The FM is not in control if resources are out sick or leave, or if project priorities change causing resource shifts. The best the FM can do is to report the situation as it is to the PM and portfolio manager, and be open to having project variances clearly pinned to functional performance variances.


With reasonable and rational expectations set at planning time and made part of the overall organization’s project management and portfolio management process, there will be less conflict, less unnecessary strain on functional resources, and a greater probability of project success.

If there is chronic conflict between PMs and FMs an intervention that seeks the causes and works to resolve them.


[1] Pitagorsky, G. (1998). The project manager/functional manager partnership. Project Management Journal, 29(4), 7–16 (

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.