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Projects ARE a Distraction for Functional Organizations

FEATUREAug5thWhen managing projects within functionally-structured organizations it can often feel like a daily challenge to engage people managers effectively such that staff allocations are predictable. 

Not only might the managers in such organizations be reluctant to make staff commitments, the true availability of your new team members are also likely to be subject to the ebbs and flows of operational work.  To make things worse, it is rare in functional organizations that project managers have direct input into team member performance evaluations, so given that these evaluations are solely performed by the staff’s direct managers, it is a reasonable assumption that team member focus would primarily be on their day-to-day activities.
The manifestations of this could include any of the following behaviors:

  • Functional managers challenging or questioning project roles, responsibilities or activities for team members
  • Availability or allocation of team members changing frequently with little or no warning from the team members or from their direct managers
  • Team member substitutions with the project manager being the last to know
  • Project managers getting admonished for following up directly with team members on work status or progress
  • Absence or minimal participation from team members in project status meetings

You may have done a good job of explaining how the project’s success will benefit the functional managers & their teams, so it can be extremely frustrating when even basic cooperation is lacking. 

A fundamental difference exists in how projects are perceived between functional organizations and balanced or strong matrix ones.  While we might consider projects to be the medium through which positive change occurs, in functional organizations, they represent a costly diversion for staff.  As the percentage of effort spent by a team on operational work nears 100%, the greater can be the challenge in engaging staff on project work.

This issue cannot be resolved by a single project manager or even by a PMO – the change needs to come from the functional teams themselves.  The first step is acknowledgement – if you can help the management team recognize that project work will not diminish over time and that they should consider implementing approaches to reduce impacts to operational responsibilities, that’s half the battle won. 

An approach to consider is rotational segregation of staff within existing teams.  Depending on the volume of project work and the available capacity, one or more staff can be requested to focus on project work for a fixed period of time and once their project “tour of duty” is over, they will be rotated back to daily operational work.  This avoids the divisiveness of permanently splitting a team, and increases the likelihood of knowledge transfer between team members.

Project managers might find people manager behavior perplexing in functional organizations, but this is another good scenario to apply Covey’s Fifth Habit “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”. 

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