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Large projects and enterprises always seem to have various levels of management. There's usually a top committee that runs the overall direction and big-picture of the project, and one or more levels that are concerned with details of a specific part that report back to the 'higher' managers. Smaller projects seem to often get by with one manager who oversees everything.

How can I tell if a project is suited to multiple levels of management, or even if it should grow beyond one manager? Are there any guidelines by numbers, philosophy, project complexity, etc.? What else should I know when deciding if I should partition a project into multiple levels of management?

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As in most things related to project management, there are no absolutes. To a large extent, your company, enterprise or organization will influence what organizational structures are allowed. That said, # of people on the project and their geographic distribution play important roles.

Most organizations I have been involved in tend to create hierarchies based loosely on managing lines of communication. In any group, when anyone is allowed to communicate with anyone else, the number of communication paths can be expressed as:

n(n-1)
------
  2

where n = the number of people. As the size of the group increases, the number of communication paths grows quickly. A group of 10 has 45 paths, but a group of 20 will have 190. Many opportunities for information to get lost, not communicated to those who need it, or simply mangled.

Besides that, it's difficult for one person to effectively manage 50 or 100 people without delegating some of their management authority. Once they've done that, voila! You've just created at least 1 management tier. Things to consider:

  1. Your environment. What patterns does your organization currently employ? Are they willing to embrace change? How might adding 'tiers of management' change the culture? How is management viewed in general - would adding more be viewed positively?
  2. Geography. Does everyone work in the same room? floor? building? city? country? You can manage a group of people who work in a different city, but it's not easy.
  3. Group size. Organizations differ here, but keep groups sized so that they can be effectively managed by one person.
  4. Structure. Are groups already organized along functional lines in your org? Is it a matrix organization?
  5. Personnel. Do you have people with the management and communications skills needed?
  6. Do you have the budget to hire these managers?
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Use higher levels of management if there are multiple projects that could be grouped to together into specific, over-arching goals. These groupings are generally called Portfolios.

The higher levels of management make decisions like which portfolios should get what level of resources/budget and which projects within each portfolio should get what level of resources/budget -and by when should they be delivered. This is done by prioritizing portfolios and projects within portfolios.

The individual projects are then managed either by individual project managers or through a project management office (PMO).

Only add these levels of management if you need to have or would benefit from a formalized prioritization and decision making process across all projects. Otherwise, it can be a real hinderance to planning, executing and completing projects.

  • I agree with your concern, but the question seemed to me looking for guidance on organizing really large projects, not necessarily managing programs or portfolios. How would you organize a ship construction project for an aircraft carrier? – DaveParillo Feb 18 '11 at 5:05
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You're mixing together projectized and functional organizational structures. A project always has one level of management (at least according to PMBOK), which is represented by a Project Manager. All other management levels on top of it are functional managers.

Projectized and functional managers have different objectives. Read more about different organizational structures.

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There may be times when you -- as a project manager -- are overwhelmed with the tasks of personally following up on issues and need some help, but this doesn't necessarily justify creating a new position or expanding the hierarchy to include a Program Manager who coordinates a team of project managers, as the extra workload may just be temporary.

Solution to Feeling Overwhelmed - Self-Organizing Teams:

I've worked in places where teams were self-organizing. In one case, I needed to train personnel on how to use software that we had recently developed and released as a private beta. The supervisors of the users were assigned the tasks of conducting the training, but all my time became consumed by answering questions and communicating with the 8 people handling the training.

I held a meeting and explained that I needed some help coordinating the training; I asked if one of the supervisors had extra time to help communicate issues and questions to me and relay the information back to the team. One person volunteered.

This supervisor took a lot of weight off of my shoulders. She picked my brain and learned everything she could about the software so that, when problems or questions were encountered, she could step in and help.

She also proactively asked the other supervisors questions about how the training was going and helped make sure that we were meeting our goals. Instead of having to follow up with each supervisor individually, I effectively delegated the task of making training a success by eliciting a highly-motivated volunteer.

When the training was completed and the software was released to public beta, the self-organizing team naturally dissolved.

In my experience, self-organizing teams can be unofficially formed and unofficially dissolved, and tend to consist of volunteers who not only have a strong interest in the project, but also they have a specific set of skills that make them a great fit for the point of contact/liaison.

Here are Some Helpful Tips on Self-Organizing Teams and How They Compare to Command and Control.

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