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I keep running into this problem over and over when I work in relatively large companies with a matrix management organization.

Basically, I deal with multiple concurrent projects. My "deliverables" are typically monitored by a distinct PM for each project who oversees the project from start to completion. At random times and totally without the input of people who actually do the work, projects are accelerated, throttled, created or canceled.

It happens a lot and this situation leads to two nasty and recurring problems:

  • I get asked to "estimate" the time for a bunch of deliverables for project X-- with no real distinction between critical high-value tasks and boiler-plate polishing. I do my best and provide estimates which are then recorded into an excel spreadsheet. However, everything subsequently gets thrown into chaos when some other PM declares that project Y is a super hot revenue opportunity requiring every effort to complete on time. That's fine with me and I do my best to prioritize the most important deliverables for both project X and Y-- which invariably means that things get back-burnered if I assess that they're of lesser value compared to other deliverables. Unfortunately, project review for X pops-up while I have my nose to the grindstone and I then have to answer for "past-due" deliverables. It makes me feel like crap because I worked hard to juggle my work so that I meet the most important priorities, but from the point of view of the PM for project X, it is just three "red boxes" on his gantt chart and he doesn't care (and, in fact, holds it against me) if I cleared by desk and worked super-hard to meet a deliverable on hot project Y.

  • I often need to have collaboration from peers who are working on projects U, V, and W. They're all nice people but they're also "under the gun" of their PM's. Requests for help are too frequently met with silence or tepid responses. By the same token, when I get asked for assistance, I have to struggle very hard to respond in a quality way. Ultimately, we depend on each other for help and the project landscape makes it very hard to predict if/when help can be obtained from peers.

My questions:

  • How do you handle this type of situation?

  • Is this an unavoidable consequence of "Matrix Managment"? Is there anyone other than "the doers" that will even understand if some deliverables have to get sacrificed to meet an important deliverable?

  • How do I convince disparate stakeholders that sometimes their project has to take a backseat to others for the overall benefit of the mission?

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closed as not constructive by Rhys, gnat, ChrisF, CincinnatiProgrammer, Rarity Feb 13 '13 at 20:11

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Do you have a functional manager? Managing the demands of the PMs should be your functional manager's responsibility. – jdb1a1 Feb 12 '13 at 22:25
Yes, thanks, but how much can my manager do even in an ideal situation? The projects change so quickly-- not to mention that my particular manager is extremely inflexible about commitments. – teego1967 Feb 12 '13 at 22:30

How do you handle this type of situation?

You don't, unless it's your job and you have that authority. Your job is delivering (the way you describe it), not deciding priorities. That a PM says X is more important than Y doesn't make it so. Typically there is something like a Program or Portfolio Manager that has the overarching responsibility for all projects.

What you do is tell the PM for X when he or she comes with revisions to schedule or the likes that you are already fully committed to project X, Y and Z. If X needs to be moved up, the PM needs to figure that out with the PM:s for Y and Z so they all agree. When all PM:s have given their acceptance to the new prio, then you can go ahead and put Y and Z on the back-burner. If this fails, refer them to you direct manager and let him or her figure out the allocation. It's what managers are there for, after all.

Is this an unavoidable consequence of "Matrix Managment"? Is there anyone other than "the doers" that will even understand if some deliverables have to get sacrificed to meet an important deliverable?

This is going to sound very, very harsh and I'm not saying this to hurt you. You are being taken advantage of. Everyone understands perfectly well that some things have to be sacrificed if others are to be completed faster. But you have to understand that a PM will do his or her utmost to ensure that it's not their project that gets sacrificed. They have stakeholders screaming down their ears as well. And they've found that if they scream loudly enough at you, you'll do what they ask and you'll take the flak from other stakeholders who gets hurt. Don't be the "good guy", don't do the PM:s job for them.

How do I convince disparate stakeholders that sometimes their project has to take a backseat to others for the overall benefit of the mission?

You don't, it's not your job to. Unless you are the program manager, area responsible or CEO, it's not your role to decide what best benefits the mission. Don't accept responsibilities that are above your pay-grade.

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Thanks, I really appreciate this reality-check. I guess I really don't like to go to my current manager with intricate questions about what short-term items to drop or not drop in order to get X, Y, or Z done. In most jobs, I've experienced prioritization as something that I do rather than something I have to ask about. I suppose this works in smaller orgs where functional manager, line PM, and program manager are just one or two people, but not in large orgs? – teego1967 Feb 13 '13 at 14:50
@teego1967 I think your assessment is correct. In a small enough organization, the different people will have a shared view of what the common goal is and good enough overview of the entire business to agree implicitly on priorities. As a company grows larger and more complex, those views will diverge while politics and position-jockeying become more prevalent. Some companies manage to maintain flexibility and empower people at all levels to make decisions they think is best for the company, but that kind of culture requires really strong and brave leaders and managers. Not very common. – pap Feb 14 '13 at 7:33

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