Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Re-drawing The Project Organisation Structure

When we talk about organisational structures in projects, we typically talk about line vs. matrix management responsibilities. In a line management structure, Jane hires me and sets my goals for the year. I meet with Jane on a regular basis and discuss my progress towards my goals and it is Jane who appraises my performance at the end of the year.

In a matrix management structure, Jane still hires me. However, my goals may be set my Matt (or Peter or Christina) depending on the work that I'm undertaking at that time. It is Matt who I meet on a regular basis to discuss progress against my goals and he provides feedback to Jane at the end of the year on how I've done.

Projects should exist in this matrix organisational structure where responsibility is shared for the completion of tasks and the achievement of outcomes.

The problem that we have in projects is that this environment of shared responsibility is then drawn in a hierarchical way that makes it look anything but shared. Instead it points to one person – let's call them the Project Blocker.


It's the Project Blocker's responsibility to make sure that everyone knows what they need to do and if they need a decision, they have to come back to them. The Project Blocker assumes control in times of crisis and chairs all the important meetings about all the important things.

If Project Blocker #1 can't resolve an issue, then Project Blocker #2 is called upon to assume control and chair all the meetings until the issue is resolved, at which point Project Blocker #1 picks up the project again.

Projects that behave in this way stifle innovation and decision-making within the team and create environments that consistently lose good people.

A better way to draw the project team is to highlight the key relationships required between the groups involved in doing the work. Better still is to get those people involved – at the planning stage – in drawing the relationships themselves. Re-drawing the project organisation structure in this way creates a different kind of environment. One that drives autonomy and removes the need to bring every decision back to a single Project Blocker.


This is something that MIT (Massachusettes Institute of Technology) did in the 1960s and, more recently, Deborah Ancona talks about in her book X-teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed. She calls it 'distributed leadership', where one tier is replaced with many expandable networks and where people can easily move in and out of the structure.

I like this approach as it encourages other people to lead, make decisions and create relationships across the organisation. These networks become self-sufficient, try different things within the constraints they have and seek guidance only when it's required. It means the project manager then becomes the 'captain' of the project team, setting the example and ensuring that the game plan and goals are continually understood and tracked.

Of course, these kinds of structures, and the way that they're drawn, require a different kind of project manager, a Conscious Project Leader. Someone who is not held back by the old ways of doing things or the behaviours of those around them. Someone dedicated to creating a culture that's truly unique and memorable. Being a Conscious Project Leader is a choice that more project managers need to make.

Re-drawing the project organisation structure won't change the world, but it might just change the way the project team gets things done.

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