Published here August 2019


Musings Index

Dan Pedersen on Program Management & Matrix Organizations

Max's Note: Anyone working in the project management field well knows that we have a problem with the meaning of the term "PM". PM could be: Project Manager or Program Manager, or even Project Management or Program Management. But then we have a similar problem with "Project Management". Does project management still have only the classic meaning of the management of a single project?

Or can it also mean the whole gamut of effort on a scale ranging from Tools and Techniques through Project Management, Program Management, Project Portfolio Management or even PM Governance? Yes, I know that most times the short form is made clear by its context, but that is hardly the level of precision to be expected of a professional organization. This issue also came up in the following surprising exchange.

An Email out of the blue

In April 2019, I received this email from Dan Pedersen:

Mr. Wideman,

I understand that you are one of the original PMBOK authors. I understand that much of the PMBOK is modeled after the NASA program's management approach.

When I started my career at a major aircraft company 35 years ago, PM's nearly always had signature authority and dedicated resources. My mentors from the NASA program schooled me on the importance of unity of command. If I was forced to accept a shared resource, I was instructed to always declare the shared resource as a risk so that I could forestall most conflicts, by forcing the reporting up the chain of command.

Since that time, I have taken over a 4-billion dollar program and dozens of troubled 100 million dollar programs around the globe. In nearly every case, the root cause of a failing program was lack of authority or conflicting priorities stemming from a matrix organization.

How did this get missed in the PMBOK?

I have been meaning to talk to you for nearly ten years. Is there a convenient time for us to talk?

I am living in Seattle, Washington.


To which I replied:

Dear Dan,

How wonderful to hear from you and your wonderful history (that really deserves public recognition).

Yes, certainly NASA was a significant source of input to the original PMBOK concept. But so also were the well-known EPC companies of the day. As the record shows (on my web site), it was not a question of selecting the right sources. Rather, it was the accidental input of representatives from those and other organizations that felt sufficiently strongly to provide their experience as input.

So, to develop the original document a special PMBOK Validation Workshop was proposed, to take place just prior to the 1985 annual Seminar/Symposium. ( revisited/credibility.htm) It is true that attendance at this workshop was only by special invitation, but those invites were sent to those who had shown a special interest and experience up to that time.

But the intent of a "PMBOK" was to identify a sort of natural system for any type of individual project, for any type of situation, of any size. It was not really about organizational structure in the broader sense, e.g. a matrix organization. This subject had already been written up quite extensively in PMI's first-ever book on project management: The Implementation of Project Management — The Professional's Handbook edited by Dr. Linn Stuckenbruck. This book was published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company in 1981. The subject of matrix organizations was dealt with in Chapter 6, pages 69–93. In any case, nowadays that would be a part of program management rather than individual project management.

As an aside, clearly we have a confusion of understanding of the term project management (PM), which these days may imply any part of the discipline from the bottom (tools and techniques) up to the top of the organizational hierarchy (PM Governance).

Maybe we should deliberately label the management of an individual project as "iPM"? Would that fly do you think?

But I digress. Yes, the role of a PM (project manager) these days seems, in many cases, to have been dunned down to the point of being a mere functional go-fer, with limited authority compared to the "old days". By the same token, all the in-house IT projects that are so prolific these days, including so-called "agile", are really run by "Functional Managers" with specific technical knowledge, rather than "Project Managers" with specific project management knowledge.

Given the latitude of many IT projects in terms of cost and schedule, one might question whether project management, as we originally conceived it, is really being practiced at all — just only small parts of it. The rest of the time is spent on managing product development, which is not the same thing.

Turning to your experiences in managing projects and programs, have you written those up at all, together with your findings? If so, I would be pleased to publish a sample of your work.

As to a phone call, that can be a bit of a challenge, but worth trying. Thanks again for Emailing and stirring the old brain cells.

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