Neo: I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life. Morpheus: You’ve felt your entire life that there is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

- The Matrix

Sometimes, when working in matrix organizations, you feel like Neo, starring in the film ‘The Matrix’, because portfolio & resource management is not easy, but matrix organizations are even increasing its complexity. So, why organizing like this?

  • It is a response for providing higher organizational flexibility. There are more opportunities for cross-functional units (= MTM or Multi Team Membership) to work together and it is how most knowledge-based organizations plan their resources today*.

The practical implications of working in MTM dynamics, is like a double-edged sword, where the demand perspective and the resource perspective each take a side in a delicate balancing act**.

On the one hand, you do not want to see scarce capacity being wasted, so instead of being limited to their own ‘silo’, people can be moved much easier from job to job when demands make it necessary. Consequently, working in an MTM dynamic provides an opportunity for saving money, and developing people’s capabilities even more as well.

At the same time however, it is alarming that in these matrix and knowledge driven organizations, resource management issues are on top of their concerns list. Caused by the number of simultaneous team memberships, as well as the variety of different work types, the risk of people being overloaded, is high.

Let’s take a deep-dive in those two perspectives and the typical Mid-Term resource management issues that occur:

Do you recognize these Mid-Term RM issues in matrix organizations?

In a matrix organizational structure, multiple people, pulled from multiple departments, will be working on multiple projects in parallel (= MTM). Regarding the demand perspective of an MTM dynamic, typical negative aspects of belonging to multiple teams simultaneously are:

  • Increased task-related demands;
  • Time-scheduling conflicts;
  • Spending more time on catching up with work done by the rest of the team;
  • Increased amount of relocations;
  • Managing regular shifts between different work types;
  • Managing a higher amount of information;
  • More time needed to adjust to different roles and team-dynamics;
  • More time needed to coordinate efforts with other teams, to prevent temporal misalignment.

Regarding the resource perspective of an MTM dynamic, we notice a lack of stability and continuity in interpersonal team relationships, which makes it more difficult to develop trust to minimize intragroup conflict and foster team-oriented efforts. This often leads to overload, which results in less productivity, even reinforcing the overload issue, and combined with deadlines it leads to exhaustion.

You might have read some of the abovementioned issues and had a moment of recognition. No worries, we have you covered:

How to maximize the advantages of matrix organizations and prevent or reduce issues

1. First, on the (senior) resource manager level, you need to develop and ensure a team culture.

This way, the overall organizational performance defines & drives the priorities, instead of sub-level, departmental priorities and needs. Under these conditions we can prevent people often feeling torn between the commitment to their operational tasks as well as to the projects assigned to them*.

When not feeling supported by their leadership and properly managed, this potential loyalty conflict often leads to, on one hand, people retention issues over time, and on the other hand that, in the end, project work is treated as a ‘second-grade’ job.

Because if a line manager has the final say on priority decisions, they will keep their best people close to them, to ensure their experience will be most beneficial to their own departmental growth and development. In this case, the matrix model can’t work, and they will actually frustrate the people with the right mindset and attitude. It leads to the fact that the people, who are allowed to work on other projects, are not only perceived as less valuable for the organization, but also to the risk of quality issues in the delivered project results, because they may indeed have fewer experience and skills, which reinforces the first issue. With that approach, don’t expect miracles in both project quality as well as timely delivery.

Moreover, you need to have people with specific capabilities, who are willing to work more multi-dimensional when it comes to their responsibilities***. They need both disciplinary capabilities, related to their domain of expertise, as well as supportive capabilities, like self-steering, leadership project management and team-work capabilities, as well as a team-work mentality. And not everyone fits that characteristic! So developing this generic staff characteristic already starts at the hiring and selection process, but needs to be reinforced during HR’s People development process

2. Stable and sufficiently staffed teams, with focus on getting the job done

Projects are team efforts, so it requires a level of team stability to allow them to develop and improve their team performance. A lack of stability and continuity in interpersonal relationships makes it more difficult to develop a trust-level among team members, which minimizes intragroup conflict and fosters team-oriented efforts.

By definition project schedules contain a certain level of unpredictability, so project resource plans need flexibility. When people are part of multiple projects at once, next to their planned operational work, there will be too many dependencies and constrains, allowing for that flexibility. So it is Mid-term resource management’s specific task to deliberately reduce multi-tasking of teams or having team members on too many projects at the same time. Because otherwise they will never be there where they are needed the most.

3. Ensure the job is really done when it is done

Plan for proper transfer of knowledge and ownership during the project’s life cycle to people with a more operational oriented staffing profile, as well as sufficient capacity for incident response services. Without that, it will place the quality of your products and services at risk, and consequently the future of both your customers and your talented people, thus your organization.

4.Stop so called ‘yo-yo teams’

The additional time and effort needed for transitioning team members, should not be underestimated. It takes time for a team member to get up-to speed and becoming effective before being able providing a meaningful contribution. In the end, this planning approach results in having just a bunch of skilled individuals grouped together in a spreadsheet, which then wrongfully is being called a ‘team’. Therefore, for supporting real team development, it means that, once the Mid-term resource planning is decided upon by the several stakeholders, it should be treated as ‘frozen’ until the next updating cycle. Stakeholders not respecting this, by taking the liberty to constantly reshuffle and reprioritize resource-assignments last minute, of course often with best intentions and for ‘good’ reasons, is one of the root causes for many project portfolio’s not delivering value.

5. Focus on critical staff where there is limited flexibility

Treating all staff equally, when creating the Mid-term resource management planning is a commonly made mistake. Reality will show that one staff member or resource type has higher scheduling flexibility than others, next to their total availability at all. When having only a limited number of specialists in certain domains, these specialists should be treated and planned for as a key-enablers in the integrated plan.

Supporting our key-enablers in only focusing on a limited set of projects at the same time, will immediately speed up the flow of completed projects, because the lower their switching effort the higher the output (=flow!). On the other hand, we also recognize the fact that they are often needed to a limited extend in teams. Therefore, it’s best not assigning them to the team as a long term project core-team member nor to a demanding operational role, as reality shows that they need to maintain maximum flexibility for providing advice and coaching on short notice to others when asked for.

6. Communicate!

And last but not least, when there’s a need to tackle complex problems (like projects are), fostering creativity (needed in projects) and supporting team collaboration (essential in projects), we need a much higher level of joint working. The secret for realizing that resides in communication. Why? The disadvantages of a matrix organizational structure make it harder for team members to ensure full understanding, for each individual project, of ‘what’s the right thing to do’ as well as ‘how to do it right’. You can resolve this issue via a clear communication plan that includes a range of communication channels, supported by a well-trained set of structured integrated tooling.

Summarized, what did we learn?

  • The successful application of a Matrix organization structure first starts with the appropriate mind-set and culture, with top management showing leadership and setting the right example and trust.
  • Ensuring team stability and focus is a key attention point, for which the basis is typically formed during the mid-term resource plan. The less variation and the higher the focus in teams, the higher their predictability of output, thus flow.
  • When getting close to capacity limits, follow the principle that flow outranks utilization optimization, as it’s the flow that creates the value. Therefore, always allow a certain level of overcapacity, for enabling absorbing temporary unexpected higher workload.
  • Allow maximum flexibility, trust, and empowerment to your senior specialists by providing them with a good view on and understanding of the organization’s Long-term priorities because they are key in maximizing the delivery flow.
  • Pay much attention to communication: transparency, structure, frequency, and the right level of detail at the right organizational level.

What’s next?

In our next blog we will take a closer look at Long-term capacity planning, which is a key component in Portfolio management. What are the typical challenges and which roles, processes, and techniques do we recognize and advise?


* Michael Boyer O’Leary’, Mark Mortensen; Anita Williams Woolley (2011): Multiple Team Membership: A Theoretical Model of Its Effects on Productivity and Learning for Individuals, Teams, and Organizations Academy of Management Review 2011, Vol. 36, No. 3, 461–478

** Reggy Hooghiemstra, Floor Rink and Dennis Veltrop (2017): FAR Research project The effects of multiple team memberships on individual auditors’ performance; 286 MAB 91, 09/10 2017

*** Karin Bredin & Jonas Söderlund (2011): The HR quadriad: a framework for the analysis of HRM in project-based organizations, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22:10, 2202-2221

Anton Zandhuis

Anton Zandhuis
Sr. Consultant NL & PM trainer

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