b-school, Business, Henley, HRM, MBA, Project Management, Projects

Roles of product/project managers in organisations (a matter of power)

Organisations are all about power. And it’s the share of power the most important element that defines their structural form. Some might say that it’s strategy, and that’s true also, or used to be true, but the shape that an organisation takes it’s all about control, flexibility and who says what.

One of the most classical forms, as Mintzberg would say, is the functional structure. If we focus on a certain product (or project) within the organisation, it can be seen how it spreads throughout the diverse functions but, at the same time, has to surpass many walls: those that separate the different functions.


Those are the walls that the Matrix Structure that I commented some days ago wanted to tear down. The fact is that our product or project will have to cope with different areas, different styles, and different line managers. Could that even be enough to make the project fail?

Following with the discussion that arose in the referred post, while studying operations I diverged and ended up with and old article from the McKinsey Quarterly from 1991. In there Kim B. Clark (Harvard Business School) and Takahiro Fujimoto (Tokyo University) focused on the role of the product manager in the car-design industry.

Guess what? It’s the same situation than the need for the matrix organisation. The only difference is that they think of the horizontal levels as product managers that need to access a spread of resources throughout the organisation. They are the ones that need the keys to the corporate walls to make their project advance. They are the ones accountable for it too.

Clark & Fujimoto defined three different ways of product managers. The first one would be the lightweight product manager:


As you can see, this one has a limited area of strong influence. Probably he only controls some parts of the process, maybe coordinating engineers or activities. But the weight still relies on the functions.

They won’t have direct access to people. Instead they will use liaisons (drawn as Ls). The people still belong to the functions so they are only able to ask for things. And it’s the task of the functions to assign priorities. They will, nonetheless, help the several groups to resolve their conflicts. They will be able to broker the information, but they can’t be held responsible for the whole product because that responsibility will be widely distributed. And… do you know what might happen when responsibility is so distributed?

The answer of that question leads us to the third form: the heavyweight product manager structure:


A reinforced product/project manager comes to the aid of the completion of the project. Now she has a broader responsibility, being the organisation still functional. It’s not the liaisons that she will be talking to, as before, but also she will have access to the whole team when necessary, and thus will be able to go down to detail with engineers.

So what if we reinforce them further? That’s when the project execution team structure comes into play.


This structure is also known as tiger team. Now people do work on the project, not just their liaisons. They have been somehow extracted of the functional structure and they belong to a new structure as a team. Some people will still work on several projects at the same time but some will be solely in this team.

What do functional managers still do in this case? They provide the people needed. So the product manager won’t have to worry about sourcing her team. She will have the maximum possible influence. And from her position she will be able to establish direct links to additional external sourcing if necessary.

It seems clear that this structure has some things in common with the matrix structure. But yet it’s still functional. As many organisations are.

Teaching about project management I can always sense how people are worried on how to match project’s needs within their organisational structures, usually not supportive at all: They have to cope with their functional/divisional requirements and the extra interdepartmental tasks. These models provide a useful framework for discussing all that. It seems clear that if you give a project manager a responsibility you have to enable her to be able to carry it along. Otherwise good intentions won’t endure and the project manager will simply become demotivated after beating a dead horse.


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