Even in the Matrix, Labor Does Have a Price

by Russell Harley

Matrix-LaborMatrix teams — formed by bringing together under a new project leader people who already report to another supervisor — is a common method of staffing projects. This is one alternative to outsourcing a project when a business has no team already available that has the requisite skill set. Matrix teams have their benefits and their challenges. There are pitfalls, however, that are often overlooked in using matrix teams on projects.

Money is not needed to save the world. Only in fiction can this be true; in the real world, not so much. Typically, matrix teams are formed using internal company staff. If a software engineer, we will call him “Neo,” is needed on a project, then IT is asked if Neo can be assigned to the project. The downside, of course, is that when a price of a project is estimated, the “cost” a company is “paying” Neo to be on a project is ignored in many cases.

However, our friends in finance will be happy to explain that Neo’s cost to the business is anything but free. Not just his salary, but benefits, vacation, et cetera, all should be added to the project’s costs when a project budget is determined. If this is not done, then the company has no idea if outsourcing the project might be cheaper than using an internal team. After all, if the internal team of superheroes has no cost, then no money is needed to do any project, including one that is saving the world.

Please choose the “red task” or the “green task.” Another commonly overlooked concern with using matrix teams is, if our software engineer Neo is busy working on Project A, what is he not working on that could be as important, or even more important? The official term of this dilemma: lost opportunity cost. 

As people’s eyes start glazing over at some point in project-budget calculations, it is not surprising that this topic falls off the radar. If it is hard to create a project budget where a lot of data can be known, it is even harder to try and come up with scenarios of things not being done, much less the costs involved.

These costs should, however, at least be given a rough estimate, so assignments of staffing can be made in ways that will improve a business as efficiently as possible. So if the “green task” is chosen, it makes the most sense, versus finding out much later that the “red one” would have been better.

Which reality is ‘really’ real? A question that goes to the real downside of using matrix teams is, “What are the people who are part of this type of team really doing?”

Neo has been fully engaged in doing his job at 40-plus hours per week. Now a project comes along that needs Neo’s skills for 20 hours a week for three months, approximately 260 man-hours. What happens now?

One of two things could occur. One reality is, Neo is very good at his job so the project team wants him, as he would be an asset for the project. The other reality is, Neo is not that good so Neo’s manager assigns him to the project, as that will impact the organization’s operations the least. Of course, how Neo feels about all of this may be a different reality from either of the aforementioned.

Time has no meaning. If, as noted above, Neo had been hired to do 40 hours of work without any project work involved, where does Neo find an extra 20 hours to work on the new project, assuming Neo still has 40 hours of regular work to do?

If Neo is a good worker, he will try to fit in both jobs. Typically, this would mean Neo working longer hours, so maybe 50-60 hours a week for the three months. If Neo starts to get burned out or becomes not very motivated, then something — normally, the additional project — will not get his full attention. This means the project could have delays, cost overruns, and possibly other problems.

If this is escalated to Neo’s manager, there could be many reasons given why Neo is not working on the project as needed. Higher priority work, outages, et cetera could impact Neo’s efforts on the project. All of which could be perfectly valid or not.

It could even be that Neo had some extra time available when the project started, so working on an additional project filled his time so that he was fully engaged. As the course of the project went on, however, other demands arose and the extra time he had within a “normal” work week vanished.

These pitfalls can be avoided or reduced through proper planning and understanding of employees’ real time constraints when developing a project using the matrix model.  

Russell Harley is a veteran project manager and PMO director. The best practices he advocates stem from key learnings acquired from his M.S. in Project Management combined with more than 20 years of hands-on project management experience in the high-technology, telecommunications and clean-energy sectors.

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