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Real World Project Management: Managing Your Human Resources

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You're a project manager who wants to keep your team happy, motivated, and self-sufficient — while letting them know who's boss. Joe Phillips takes you through both the theory and practice of human resources management and shows you the pros and cons of common management structures.
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It's a beautiful summer evening. Your backyard is full of friends, family, and neighbors. Giant glowing balls hang from the trees and candles, lanterns, and twinkle lights bathe the lawn in amber. There's soft Italian music, long tables of food, bottles of wine, and tubs of icy beer, soda, and French water.

Then your cell phone rings. Your date squints one eye at you as if saying, "Don't you dare answer that phone." You wink and answer anyway—you have to, you're the project manager.

Yeah, you're the freakin' project manager.

It's a team member who's working on one of your projects. You've noticed that their work has been slipping lately and now they're working through the weekend to get caught up. Only, somehow, they can't get caught up without calling you constantly. They want you, they need you, and they can't live without you, your guidance, your approval, and your constant attention. In other words, they're a pain in your neck no chiropractor can remove.

Try to forget your cookout, and move inside where you can barely hear the laughter, the clink of glasses, and the swooning music—you've got another fire to put out. What's a project manager to do?

And you know, as I sure as heck know, that this isn't the only team member problem you face. It's bigger than the constant phone calls—sometimes it's no phone calls, slipping work, incompetence, lack of resources, a team that's spread too thin, and your lack of human resource training. Okay—not yours, but that other project manager named Sue. Sorry, Sue.

The point is, human resource management is tricky, tricky business. Everything looks fan-freakin-tastic on paper, but when the wheels come off, when your team members quit, when management won't give you the resources you need, it's no fun at all. Not for you, not the project team, and not for the stakeholders. It's not rocket science, though it might feel like it—if you don't have the resources you need your project won't succeed. "Hey!" I heard you say, "Well, duh," but it's true isn't it?

Planning Is Almost Everything

If you've read my other project management articles or any of the books I've written on project management you'll know that planning is a cornerstone for successful projects. I like to say that myprojects always fail in the beginning, not the end. But when it comes to human resources, at least in the project manager's world, there are some constraints that affect how planning will happen.

The biggest influence on the project manager's control of the project team is the organizational structure. Okay, take a deep breath, because this stuff gets really nerdy. (Yes, even for me. Shocking!)

There are six organizational structures (shown in Figure 1) that basically describe companies throughout the world. Figure 1 shows all the structures and so we'll start at the bottom and work our way up.

Functional Structure

The functional structure is no fun for the project manager. I say this because the project manager has little to no power and may be known as a project coordinator rather than a project manager. In this structure, the organization is grouped by discipline, such as marketing, engineering, sales, information technology, basket weavers, and so on. Projects are limited to the specific function and don't cross boundaries across the organization. Multiple project teams can work together, but it's all considered separate projects with separate managers.

In a functional structure, the functional managers have all the power. Whatever they say goes. This isn't too bad, as team members have a clear picture of who's in charge and so that when the project's over they can go back to their day-to-day routines. Communication demands are also fairly shallow because the structure itself is shallow. It's easy to communicate and share ideas in a functional structure.

Weak Matrix

A weak matrix gives the project manager a bit more power, but still less than the functional manager. Matrix structures use resources from across the organization, not from just one discipline. Team members are on multiple projects at once and it can become muddy as to when team members have deadlines for which project, who's really in charge, and which project takes priority when there are conflicts.

A project manager in a weak matrix may also be known as project coordinator. They'll serve as the liaison between the functional manager, the project team, and other project coordinators. In all of the matrix structures, communication demands go up because so many more managers are involved.

Balanced Matrix

A balanced matrix describes the power between the project manager and the functional managers. A balanced matrix still uses resources from across the organization, but the project manager and the functional managers may have some real struggles for power, priority, and team members' time.

Ready for some sarcasm? It's lots of fun! This is where all the politics, cultural achievability, and, uh, backstabbing, sabotage, and discontent come into play. It's no fun for the project team either, because they're on multiple projects too and their time is spread so thin you can see through it.

Strong Matrix

Things are looking better for the project manager within a strong matrix structure. This structure is similar to the other matrixes, in that team members can come from all over the organization, not just one department. Guess who's got the power? Yep, the project manager. Things get a little easier, but not much. There's still power struggles, politics, demand for employees' time, and lots of communication needs.


Ah, paradise. A projectized organization, in my opinion, is ideal for large organizations. The project manager has the power, usually reports to a Project Office or a Chief Project Officer, and the project manager calls the shots on the project. The project team is generally happier because they're on the project full-time.

Communication demands are reduced because the project team chats with just one boss, the project manager. The project manager is still the hub of communications, but the communication demands aren't as broad as the matrix models.

And the rub? As the project winds down the project team may feel some anxiety because they don't know what their next project will be. For all they know, and as some have experienced, the end of the project represents the end of their career with the current company.

Composite Project

It's never as easy as it looks, right? Well, I can think of a few things that are: falling down, eating ice cream, and drinking beer. But when it comes to identifying your organizational structure you may find that you're in a blend of the above models. You're in a composite. A composite is just two or more models that are adapted for a special project, for simplicity, or to keep power in check.

Knowing the type of structure you, the project manager, are operating in helps determine the autonomy you'll have, the communication demands you'll have to satisfy, and the workflow of your project. Of course, you'll still have to live by all of your company's HR policies. Just because you're in a projectized model doesn't mean you get to wear a comb over, squint a lot, and shove your hand in people's faces while saying, "You're fired." (My apologies to The Don.)

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