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What are the pros and cons of incorporating a project manager into a research team? If anyone has any experience doing so, do you have any suggestions about how to make the program manager as effective as possible?

Often a research project has a different atmosphere than a product group. Open-ended research is hard to plan. You can't plan for breakthroughs, but breakthroughs are exactly what researchers are seeking. A significant part of a researchers' time is figuring out exactly which problems to work on (or working on problems that go nowhere). And, research is about risk; if it wasn't high risk, it wouldn't be research. So, in some sense, research is about chaos. At the same time, project managers seem to prefer order: e.g., carefully planned timelines and schedules and milestones. I can imagine this might drive the researchers crazy -- and conversely, I can imagine that a research environment might drive a program manager crazy.

Also, in many research programs there is already a leader with an exciting vision who can corral and inspire folks, but who isn't necessarily the best at the nitty-gritty details of project management. And, researchers tend to respect those who can "talk shop" with them and who are in command of the intellectual, substantive stuff. So, this means that a project manager probably cannot expect to be the leader that everyone looks up to and might not be in the best possible position to tell the researchers what to do.

So, is a project manager a good fit for this kind of atmosphere, and if so, how can a project manager best add value and make the relationship work well?

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Interesting question. The first question "Should ..."is intrinsically subjective and a bad fit for Stackexchange. I think there is considerable extraneous material included in the question, but I think that winnowing away the chaff to get at the critical elements of the question is part of your question. –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 24 '12 at 11:03

3 Answers 3

Having done research (genetics, protein chemistry, proteomics and bioinformatics) and having been a project manager with a research team (pre-clinical research) I can tell you that, based on my experience, having a project manager - or at least awareness and implementation of project management best practices - is very helpful because:

  • It helps keep the team on task. There can be a tendency (at least in the biopharma world) for researchers to investigate what is interesting rather than what will move the project ahead. This results in diffusion of effort and non-value-added work.
  • It helps keep the team moving forward. Again, there can be a tendency to try to get things "perfect" when "good enough" is all you need. The PM principle of focus on a valid business case is really needed in research to weed out the ideas that won't work. You wouldn't believe how much time and money I've seen wasted because of a lack of awareness of the need for a business case.
  • It helps promote communication. Especially in academia I've found researchers can talk for hours but communicate nothing. Mentors don't tell their students/technicians what their acceptance criteria are, students/technicians don't pass on accurate and timely information to their mentors, etc etc. Industry is a lot better but when an academic starts a company or you get someone in fresh from college there can be problems.

One thing you have to wary of is that research is iterative, so your plans have to be flexible and able to adjust to a constantly changing environment. This can be frustrating for the PM but is part and parcel of research.

You will also likely encounter significant resistance if you are trying to introduce PM practices into an existing Research environment. Scientists don't like to have a non-expert telling them what they should do, and that is what they will perceive your role as being. Be patient and work hard to engage them in planning efforts so that they see that the PM is there to help them keep their plan on track.

As you noted in your question, probably the only thing PM won't help you with in a research environment is getting breakthroughs. But the fact of the matter is that breakthroughs represent probably less than one percent of one percent of one percent of research. And any breakthroughs you get will be based on a huge amount of work devoted to incremental improvements in your knowledge base. At a corporate level you should have a slush fund to investigate brilliant ideas your team comes up with outside of your overall research plan, just don't expect a return on it.

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I think the critical question is the second "What are the pros and cons of incorporating a project manager into a research team?"

Superficially the answer is to quote the definition of a project - "temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result" If you are researching to produce a specific change (formulate a drug to cure X, or an algorithm to solve Y), then that's a project, and I think one can argue that a PM could assist. I think one could argue that most research projects begin with a hypothesis that the research will prove or disprove, and that hypothesis is the statement of work. Most of the comments made in this question about software development teams are also true for researchers. Researchers (in my liminted experience) want to do research. The PM can act as an umbrella to divert non research concerns/issues away from the researcher and allow them to focus on the tasks to which their skills and passions drive them.

I suspect that the most valuable parts of the PM's time will be in the Initiating/planning and closing stages, although I believe that I've heard some of my research friends talk about competition for critical equipment, which is effectively a work planning system, and I know that I've heard my research colleagues talking about interpersonal tension; deconfliction of that tension is a core skill in the execution phase. I believe that research is similar to project management in that nobody really appreciates the value of the up front planning research prior to the experiment/project. I have no evidence, but I believe that having a PM manage the Management & Oversight Control would be of benefit to all (nobody might enjoy it, but I suspect that having an outsider manage it would be a benefit). I have a notion that the stakeholder management analogue in research management would be interesting but I can't quite put my finger on it now.

I haven't done formal research since High School (when we used wet clay spread on stone tables and recorded our research in cuneiform), but it seems to me that research is a bit more like portfolio management. (I can't find a good, terse definition, edits welcome). If I understand your open research projects correctly, they involve a set of projects/hypotheiss, each of which will be addressed by one or more experiments(projects) that are managed with similar constraints and procedures. Your goal is to find the best way to organize the resources available. In both open ended research and in portfolio management you need to ask questions like:

  1. Is this project/experiment well planned? Are all the resources available? Are there any schedule conflicts for people/equipment/etc. Is it well defined/scoped? Is the hypothesis well formed and reviewed? Is the experiment well designed to support/disprove the hypothesis. (? do you use peer review on this stuff? Are fellow researchers effectively stakeholders?) Is the predicted duration of the experiment enough to effectively address the hypothesis, but short enough to release critical resources to other projects at relevant times?
  2. Is this project the best investment of these resources? Does this approach or hypothesis still look promising? Are there alternative designs that might prove more fruitful? (even if they are less satisfying to the researcher personally?)
  3. Is this project likely to complete successfully, or is it time to close this project and move the resources to one that is more likely to succeed?
  4. What are the impediments, issues, and risks that diminish the chance that this research/project will succeed? What can I do to reduce the uncertainty, and what can I do to mitigate the impact? (e.g. Lab is too small, we're missing critical skills or equipment, researcher is distracted by administrative crap, etc.)
  5. What are the techniques/procedures/tools common to all of these projects/research efforts? Is there a way that I can optimize these? New equipment? new training? new resources? Are there external experts that we could consult?
  6. What are the lessons learned from this project/line of research/approach/experiment that I can document for re-use in my next project/research/experiment? Apart from the confirmation/disposition of the core hypothesis, what else did I learn? Can I use anything I learned outside my core research? Can I market it either to other portfolio managers/researchers, or even commercially? (We're always looking for the penicillin/post-it note/viagra lesson)
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+1 very complete answer and well explained –  Picarus Oct 25 '12 at 20:47

I think characterizing research as chaos is a misrepresentation. Research follows strict scientific methods. You have limited funds. You have constraints on schedule. You have risks. You have quality concerns. You have scope. You have to procure equipment and materials. You have to hire appropriately skilled staff. You have to communicate results to someone or some group.

I cannot imagine that research firms simply throw millions of dollars to a bunch of scientists and say, "go forth and do great things."

"Researchers tend to respect those who can 'talk shop'...." Every practitioner in every industry says the same thing. Most PMs are born from the employee population so this is a non sequitar anyway.

A research project is surely different than a project to build a shed, but it still has a start and stop and needs managing, so you will still have a project manager and the methods would be consistent with a research project.

Answers to comments: I have never put any thought into how to PM a research project as I have never had the opportunity to do so. Adaptation would always be needed, not because you are moving from something traditional to research but because you 'always' adapt your approach to meet the needs of the project. All projects are unique, even those you do "all the time."

It sounds to me the exploratory portion of research is not a project at all, but more of normal operations. It sounds like, once the exploration is done and you arrived at the hypotheses, approach, etc., the research project begins. Maybe this is just point of view, I don't know.

I neither recommend nor not recommend putting a PM with research experience. Choosing a the right PM for the project at hand to be executed at a specific time in a specific place calls for varying competencies. One project might be best served with a research experienced PM while another might be best served with a PM that brings to the table another capability having nothing do to with research. I would recommend not giving up flexbility in your hiring approach, i.e., do not adopt this sort of cookie cutter formula. I have never seen that work well.

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How would you adapt project management to best reflect a research environment? Or would you argue that no adaptation is needed? –  D.W. Oct 24 '12 at 1:05
    
"Research follows strict scientific methods" - well, this is probably only part of what researchers do. Some research is exploratory research: you try to figure out what are the right questions to ask, the right problems to tackle, the right approach to take, etc. Contrast this to a scientific experiment designed to test a specific hypothesis, following a carefully designed experimental protocol that's been specified in great detail. (In practice, there's a spectrum between these extremes.) –  D.W. Oct 24 '12 at 1:07
    
"Most PMs are born from the employee population" - Does this mean you would recommend that the PM should be someone who has previous experience as a researcher? Or am I misinterpreting this comment? –  D.W. Oct 24 '12 at 1:13

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