Functional and Project Manager?s Duel

Filed under Career | Posted by PMStudent

I receive many questions from the pmStudent community, and one of the highlights of my day is reading and responding to these.

This morning I received a fantastic question, and I would like to share it with everyone.

[Note: As a general rule, I will exclude first names and countries from now on.? Your privacy is very important to me.? If you want me to refer to you by name and country in a blog post, please let me know.? Otherwise I am going to keep things anonymous so everyone is comfortable!]

Hello Josh,

I would like to thank you for your hard work. All the information you send to us is extremely helpful and educational. That being said, I have a question that confuse me. My question is regarding the relationship between project manager and line manager. Especially when it comes to project driven organization, what is the purpose of line manager. I read a book regarding this, the more I read about it the more I see the conflict and confusion between project manger and line manger. Do you have a chance to explain how line and project managers work together effectively.


Functional and Project Manager's Duel - by uwdigitalcollections via Flickr

Functional and Project Manager's Duel - by uwdigitalcollections via Flickr

In a matrix organization, you are going to have at least two types of managers.? Line or Functional Managers, and Project Managers.? (I will use functional manager and line manager interchangeably).? There are different types of organizational structures along a spectrum which companies can be highly projectized or highly functional.? Along this continuum the project manager role and line manager roles change.? Their roles are also highly dependent on the organizational culture.

It is important for both line and project managers to understand their roles and how they relate to each other, regardless of the organizational structure.? In a perfect world, they work together to manage projects, people, customers, etc. to the benefit of all.? They are collaborators.

If any given organization does not adequately define roles and ensure harmony, it WILL result in territorial struggles and other foolishness.? For instance, both managers may feel it’s their role to give a performance evaluation and fight with each other.? Approval for various things like replacement equipment, forms, etc. may become contentious.

People will fight over stupid things, even (perhaps especially?) managers.

If the interface between project managers and functional managers are not clearly defined, they WILL spend time nit-picking each other and stepping on each other’s toes.

Functional or Weak Matrix

  • Project Manager: Very little role or authority
  • Line Manager: Full management role and authority

In this organization type, project management is usually not seen as a formal discipline.? Functional managers run their own “projects” which are usually not much more than telling their own direct reports to go do something.

Very similiarly, in a weak matrix you have functional managers who “authorize” projects, but the management of the projects may be done by staff leads and you may also have pseudo project teams that span across multiple functional teams or departments.

Balanced Matrix

  • Project Manager: Part-time and little formal authority, provides some input to performance reviews
  • Line Manager: Full management role, does performance reviews with input from project managers, resources usually spend most of their time on operational work and a little time or temporary full-time on projects as they occur.

This organizational structure introduces the role of project manager.? MANY companies are close to this point on the spectrum.? A project manager is responsible for project(s) but does not have any formal authority over the staff that work on these projects.? In order to gain resources, the project manager will need to negotiate with functional managers for resources, and hopefully she has a good sponsor (who is usually a director or middle manager) who can negotiate for resources and participation before the project begins.

Strong Matrix

  • Project Manager: Full-time and at least as much formal authority as line manager if not more.? Staff report to project managers for years at a time for technical direction and project managers usually provide the bulk of the input and many times deliver performance reporting.
  • Line Manager: Role is mostly to support project staff.? You may see line managers being split out by job skills…engineering team, software development team, support team, etc.? Focused more on developing their specific skill sets and caliber of employees.? May arrange for group training sessions related to their discipline’s focus.? May still do administrative management functions like time cards, vacation time, sick time, etc.? Staffing coordination and planning, taking input from projects and ensuring staff are covered (have full allocations across one or multiple projects) adequately in the future.? Partner with project managers on recruiting and new hires, etc.

With a strong matrix you see the formation of something like a PMO.? Many project managers report to one functional manager.? That person is the functional manager for all the project managers.? Here you can start seeing some effective sharing and implementation of best practices.? Although that is possible in the other matrix models too, it becomes much easier when you have an organizational structure that supports project management as a discipline.


  • Project Manager: Employees report directly, full authority.
  • Line Manager: Role may be transferred to the project manager.? If they still exist, they are focused mostly on staffing coordination and planning, taking input from projects and ensuring staff are covered adequately in the future.? They may also coordinate recruiting and new hires, but project managers have the most influence on hiring decisions.

In this environment, project managers are responsible for their projects AND their own staff.? Staff who work on their projects also report to them in a functional/line sense.? These are truly project management organizations.? They make their money by doing projects.

This structure is advantageous if there are long project life cycles or other form of consistency where resources can be working for the same project manager over an extended period of time.? The project manager knows what the staff are doing and can coach and mentor them effectively.

This obviously puts more pressure on the project manager to be effective in managing projects AND all the aspects of people management.? I’d argue that every project manager should strive to be effective in both regardless of the organizational structure, but in a projectized environment it becomes even more critical.