GPM First


Which planet? The three-dimensional matrix specialist’s opinion

Guest Editor Adrian Taggart asks: ‘Which planet do you come from?’ Below, three-dimensional matrix specialist Henrik Sternberg responds.

The origins of my company lie in manufacturing and, unsurprisingly, the dominant organisational culture is what Adrian describes within his article as the function-oriented culture, associated with the routine operations of mass production.

Laid across this is the need to introduce new products. Such a cross-functional endeavour is a project and projects are managed by a nascent project management community which cultivates the less dominant task-oriented organizational culture. Traditionally, this situation would have been described as a weak matrix and the analysis of its internal conflicts and contradictions offered by Adrian is relevant.

However, I feel Adrian’s analysis is now dated and overly simplistic since, for so many modern organisations, the matrix has a third dimension: geography.

The economies of scale now demanded of our manufacturers ensure that they extend beyond just one country, or indeed continent. Our organisations are truly international with personnel spread across the globe.

The added complexities of this situation should not be underestimated. Consider the following:

  • the defining structural problem of a two-dimensional matrix is that workers have both a functional manager and a project (product or task) manager. To this we can now add a third manager, their local, ‘in-country’ manager;
  • as well as the conflict of the two organisational cultures within a 2D matrix structure, within our 3D matrix, project managers (PMs) must now accommodate different national cultures;
  • instead of real teams of co-located members, inevitably, we now have geographically dispersed ‘virtual teams’, many of whose members, most likely, will never meet face to face;
  • whose language should be used for correspondence?
  • whose working hours should we choose when scheduling a conference call?

How should PMs respond to these challenges? Can they be addressed by just learning appropriate new techniques or are there implications for their soft skills? And if so, what thought patterns, instincts, attitudes, values, and so on are the ones they need to be successful in this new scenario?

I have worked internationally for 15 years of which the last seven years have been abroad, working on three continents (Europe, Asia and the Americas), and I have had the opportunity to observe many PMs in action. What I’ve realised from this experience is that it is not the tools, the theory or the knowledge that make the difference to project success, but the ability of PMs to understand the different cultures, and then align, communicate and stimulate both individuals and groups to achieve the objectives of the project.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who observed that ‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people’ and I believe that if we want to succeed as global (project) managers we have to observe, understand and appreciate the values and impact of cultural differences wherever we operate in the world. However, what we must not do is underestimate how difficult this can be.

  • How do you manage engagement and dialogue with a South Korean team that has been raised not to ask any questions to a presenter (or person of authority) as it would be perceived as disrespectful to do so because it would imply that the presenter didn’t do a good enough job explaining the content?
  • How do you manage progress and quick answers when all you get from the Chinese team is that they ‘will take a look at it and discuss with their team’?
  • And when a Swedish team respectfully says, ‘We’ll take a look at it, and get back to you’ do they mean the same as the Chinese or are they just basically disagreeing with you and looking to have an opportunity for a separate discussion amongst themselves and without you?

These are very difficult scenarios to manage, but the very best PMs are somehow able to work out the answers and in doing so achieve a delicate balance. They are sufficiently rigid to stay loyal to the core requirements of the project brief, such as the framework and the timetable, while simultaneously managing to understand and address the cultural differences of the entities involved by being sufficiently flexible about how to achieve these objectives to best incorporate the different aspects of the cultures.

A special note is appropriate here about the importance of resource allocation. PMs coordinating activity across different functional departments within the same business unit will already be familiar with the dilemma of a 2D-matrix organisation and the critical role this plays in resource allocation and the monitoring of project progress. Imagine managing similar complexity across several countries with different national cultures. For instance, contrast the different perception of importance of pace versus relationships in Germany and in Japan.

Packaging all this into a simple piece of advice to those setting out as international project managers, I would simply say this.

Being open minded and well-educated, and having a good track record will take you a long way in the global project management field, but remember to apply local understanding, humility and the desire to learn, and to question and to accept that other ways can be right as well. It is these skills that make the difference between an average and a very good project manager; and ultimately the difference between a successful project and an average project implementation.


Henrik Sternberg

Henrik is currently the Asia Pacific Regional General Manager for a global FMCG business whose origins and HQ are in Germany. He leads several global cost savings/profit improving projects – over 14 time zones.

In the role of sponsor, he has led product development projects in Europe, cooperating with plants, research agencies, country management and the European management team. He has also been involved in global acquisitions, holding the roles of a project team member and line manager, in parallel.

He has a first degree in change management and leadership and is a qualified Prince II practitioner. Henrik is passionate about how organizations change and develop, and has pioneered the adoption of project management training and practice within his organization.

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  • Dimitris Antoniadis
    By Dimitris Antoniadis

    Definitely agree with the above but also looking at the process / approach followed at risk management workshops I have to say there is a lot to be required.
    Back in 2003, I developed the 3D Risk Matrix approach for the 'Evaluation of Risks.
    The paper can be accessed in the below link.
    Since then I have not had time to develop this approach any further, as I moved to Complexity.
    Comments are welcome.

  • Jonathan Norman
    By Jonathan Norman

    Dimitris, this looks interesting although I could only get a glimpse of it from the link. I know you are busy but if you'd like to write it up as a short article for publication on GpmFirst over the summer, I'd love to see the concept explored further.

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