I am working as a beginning scientist and was given the management role for a small project (5 internal scientists, 1-2 external software contractors). What are the absolute essentials I need to manage this successfully?

There are several difficulties ahead right from the start:

  • the project is already running and not progressing so well,
  • my boss limits my time spent on this to 1-2 hours per week max,
  • there is a large gap in understanding between the internal people and the external contractors (each are experienced in their knowledge domain),
  • and I have zero experience in project management, both soft and hard skills.

A lot of good questions and answers on this site give advice how to do things 'right' if this is your primary job and domain of experience. However, I'm looking for a more minimalist answer within my constraints.

How can a new PM manage a failing project in a few hours per week?

A BIG THANK-YOU to all of you who answered this question. I greatly appreciate the thought and experience you put into your answers and they are very helpful. I have come to the conclusion that my first priorities must be to make a Gantt chart and to actively mediate regular communication between the other scientists on the project and our software contractors. My boss has clearly communicated his expectations, and now it's a matter of methodically determining whether they can be fulfilled.

I'd like to add a note here to explain the situation, because I got the feeling that some people were very surprised by this situation and thought it must be uncommon at best, negligent at worst. The fact is, most (all?) scientists in a leadership position are expected to manage multiple projects while additionally conducting their own research in the field, laboratory, or theoretical realm. At the same time, we must also regularly publish the results of our various projects in peer-reviewed journals and books -- ideally as soon as those results are produced ("publish or perish"). What's less common about my situation is that I am trying to manage a project which involves external contractors, and not just students and laboratory staff. However, as one moves up the academic ladder, one needs more and more skill in project management, and this is never actually taught to us. So my position is actually very common. I'm also sure that this sort of situation is not particular to academics -- as David Espina pointed out, project management is something that everyone has to do, but most of us aren't trained to do.

  • 20
    Your boss puts someone with no management experience in charge of a project that is not progressing well and also limits the new manager's involvement to a maximum of two hours per week. This leads me to believe that for some reason your boss wants this project to fail. Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 11:51
  • I could give you some advises, but I believe this topic covers most of them: pm.stackexchange.com/questions/4646/… Thinking of it, wouldn't be this question a dup (at some level) of that question?
    – Tiago Cardoso
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 12:39
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    @DavidKaczynski maybe he was in a position so that he had to promote someone. I've learned that people don't want to make projects fail. If they do, they are really mean and they have better tactics than promoting a rookie.
    – Zsolt
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 15:02
  • 2
    +1 @DavidKaczynski's original comment on this. Additional thoughts: 1. The boss was soft-selling the time commitment on the PM aspect in order to get msc to take the job. Or 2. He wants msc to fail. I don't want to get into the conspiracy stuff. But 1-2 hours a week for a new PM for a project that is already in trouble? No one with any experience would take that seriously. msc: Your first step: get your boss to allow more time per week in the PM role.
    – Kent
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 19:02
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    Just FYI, the best way to say thank you on a Stack Exchange site is to upvote helpful answers and click the green checkbox to "accept" the answer that solved your problem. Glad you found your solution.
    – jmort253
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 17:32

7 Answers 7



If your question is truly about how you can manage a project like this in less than two hours per week, the answer is that you can't. At best, you might manage some minimal status reporting.

Project Management is a Full-Time Job

Project management, when properly done, is a full-time job for someone. That doesn't necessarily mean 40 hours per week for each project; some PMs are responsible for multiple projects at a time. Nevertheless, the skills and attention required to manage successful projects require that someone is wearing the PM hat and available to the process throughout the project life-cycle.

Ailing Projects Require Experience, Attention, and Management Support

An ailing project doesn't mean that work is not being done; it just means a project that is out of tolerance for time, budget, feature delivery, or scope. In other words, it will not meet expectations. By that definition, if your project is "not progressing well" then it is out of tolerance, is already failing to meet someone's expectations, and is therefore on the path to become a failed project.

Manage this variance requires the full attention of a project manager who understands process, as well as the full and formal backing of senior management. Without those things, a project cannot be brought back within tolerance.

Use Your Time Wisely

If you are only allocated a few hours per week, I would use that time every week to:

  1. Send out emails to your boss asking for project goals and metrics.
  2. Send out emails to the team asking for status on the goals and metrics provided by your boss.
  3. Send out a one-page spreadsheet or email to everyone summarizing the results.

Granted, the report will be of limited value, but if in-depth reporting were valuable to your organization you would be given more time to develop it properly. The main benefits of this report are:

  • It makes the process, goals, and concrete metrics available to management and the team.
  • It makes the results (of whatever quality) visible to everyone, including both management and the team.

Consider a Daily Stand-Up or Weekly Retrospective

As another alternative, you can simply perform a daily stand-up, followed by a weekly report to management about process impediments. This would allow you 15 minutes per day for the stand-up, followed by 45 minutes per week of reporting.

Alternatively, you might hold an hour-long meeting each week, focusing on delivered features for the week (there will be none) and process impediments (there will be many). Time-box the meeting closely, and spend the remaining hour turning the meeting minutes into a report.


This project is statistically likely to fail. You are not reponsible for its success or failure. Your job as a PM is to referee whatever process you have, and to make the results of that process visible to the team and to management.

The success or failure of the project is the responsibility of your boss. Do not accept blame for it; keep the organization focused on the processes and management controls, however minimal they may be.

  • Truly top-notch advice. +1 Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 17:14

It is possible that your boss hasn't really got a clue as to what a PM does. When I got my first PM job my boss thought all I needed to do was send out reminders and act as a stenographer at meetings. If this is the case you have a lot less work to do than if he wants you to act as a "true" PM. So the first thing that you need to do is talk to your boss and find out what his expectations are for someone in a PM role.

Assuming that you are to fulfill a "true" PM role, the PRINCE2 principles will give you good guidance:

  1. Focus on products. Know what your end product is and what it is composed of. Make sure all the work done is relevant to that product.
  2. Ongoing business justification. The project has to provide value for money spent. Don't be afraid to suggest killing a project when the value isn't there.
  3. Defined roles & responsibilities. Without this some work will slip through the cracks and won't get done, decisions won't be made or will be made by the wrong people, etc.
  4. Management by stages. Break your project into at least a planning and an execution stage. At the end of each stage verify the business case is still valid, the plan is updated, etc and decide if you should carry on.
  5. Management by exception. Set tolerances for decision making at different levels of authority so that decisions are made by appropriate people.
  6. Learn from experience. Talk to other PMs and team members and find out how to approach the management and execution of the project. Don't be afraid to ask questions, with no experience you can't afford to be shy.
  7. Tailor your approach. You will have problems both if you have too much and too little process and oversight associated with your project. With the amount of time you have available you probably can't go whole-hog with any PM methodology.

Beyond all of this, become zen with the fact that with the constraints put on you there is little chance that the original plan will succeed. Your task now is to come up with something that will work.


First of all you need an overview of the whole system. You have to identify the key players, the key movements and motivations. My recommendation in similar cases is to do a value stream mapping exercise. In a nutshell it will provide you some information on how the organization looks like and how the information flows inside.

If you've offered an office, don't take it. Go and sit with your new team members so that you'll know who they are and what they do. With this approach they'll know you, too and all the information in both ways will be first-handed.

Unfortunately, the 1-2 hours a week won't be enough, you'll have to ask for more (just reading the answers here will take about half an hour). In order to start properly, you'll need a sponsor/mentor as well, who knows the people and the ways of working (and has time to help you out). If can afford, you can call in a consultant (I'm not in the consultation business, so this is not an advertisement, but if you need help you have to get it somehow).

If you feel that there is a gap between the internal employees and the externals, call a meeting and get them to sit at the same table and discuss the differences. If you have no experience in facilitation, ask for help from your boss or hire a consultant. If you aren't on time and you have to deal with internal politics, you won't be successful. You need to resolve the conflicts as soon as possible.

Gaining the experience is very tricky. I suggest to read a couple of Q/As here - look for the management tag and try out what you've read. As a start, you can watch a nice video on system thinking by John Seddon.

And a plus one. This won't be an easy ride. Prepare for a huge amount of over time and a physical and mental extenuation. Good luck, and let us know if you need anything.

  • I think most of your advice is good, but since he's only being allocated up to 2 hours per week, I think your last paragraph implies that: 1) it can be done meaningfully; 2) time in excess of 2 hours should be performed "off the clock"; and 3) any time allocated for PM tasks should be extra work, rather than coming out of his existing pool of hours. I know that's a lot to read into one paragraph, but that's what I got out of it. I'd give the rest of your advice a +1 without it.
    – Todd A. Jacobs
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 15:03
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    You are right. Actually, I'm not an "off the clock" person, but I still remember how does it feel to be promoted. Even it is not possible to do the work within the given limits, one tries to do it. It is a human thing. Another aspect. I remember talking to graduates when they thought that the manager's job was to give orders and keep presentations, because this is what they saw. Then they got their first jobs and got really surprised, because no one told them the last paragraph. Consider it as a first warning ;-)
    – Zsolt
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 15:18
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    Thanks for the warning, but I should draw attention here to the first sentence of my question: I am a scientist. Most scientists (at any and all stages of their careers) do a lot of off-the-clock work. I am trying to figure out how much of my off-the-clock time should be allocated to this project, as opposed to the other projects I don't have sufficient on-the-clock time for. ;-)
    – msc
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 16:56

Let's be clear that project management has been a function of work long before it became a job role and a sort of profession. I'm quite sure you have far more project management experience than you are giving yourself credit for; after all, we begin managing projects about age 5.

The PM practices are really nothing more than a logical approach to doing work in an organized way. It is not some mystical rocket science thing for which you have to go to school. You do these things now. When you have time to study it, the class will put a name to it.

Don't overthink things. Just get yourself organized with the help of your team and learn to document what you are doing.

Your boss's expectation of a couple of hours a week is...his expectation. In reality, it will be what you need it to be, and as a leader you need to set that counter expectation. However, once things settle down, an hour or two a week on a five-person team is not unreasonable.

Then, when you have time, take some training. Until then, rely on your smarts and your previous project management experience which you do have.


As others have pointed out, you can't really expect to accomplish your goal within those parameters.

In my opinion, the best you could do is try to switch over to an Agile team. The nice thing about the Agile process, if done correctly, is that it moves much of the decisions and problems facing management to the team itself. Rather than a manager identifying and solving a problem with the team, the team is encouraged to identify problems, propose and implement solutions and quantify results.

It can be difficult to implement without a coach or people who are already experienced, and it's just a waste of time to do a half-implementation because much of Agile is interdependent - removing up-front design without insisting on ruthless re-factoring would be futile. Ruthless re-factoring without full test coverage is dangerous, as is large-scale code sharing/re-factoring without pairing.

I just came from Nike where a huge chunk of their development has gone over to Agile. They had hired a coach/trainer full-time to train hundreds of developers. Even as a consultant they sent me to 3 full days of training.

It really can work well, and our reliance on management was minimal at that point. Our teams were 2 developers, 2 QAs and an analyst, with 3 of these teams under a team lead (not management) and a few hours of time with our "Customer" every two weeks to validate finished stories and choose new ones (this would probably be your role).

It's pretty hard to imagine until you've seen it operating smoothly though.

I suggest you check around for a successfull team that works within your parameters and try to copy their practice, but I can't imagine a team working within those parameters without being Agile (Heck, that should have been my whole answer!)

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    I actually think this is the best answer to this specific problem. It offers a possible alternative solution without requiring that the PM work for free or work overtime. The only issue is the transition may not be as smooth if the culture doesn't consist of agile-minded people.
    – jmort253
    Commented Sep 11, 2012 at 1:10

Some great advice so far, although there's some information that's missing from your description that's critical -

Are the people you mentioned full-time on this project? What does 'failing' mean? IS it behind schedule? Was there a real plan put together before it started? Why does mgmt think it only takes 1-2 hours? Why do you say it's failing?

These are all important, for the simple reason that, before you can 'turn it around' you need to understand the reality of it. You need to look at the overall project, the expected results, the planned progress, the current state, the reality of delivering to expectations, the team, etc., and then assess what it would take for you to deliver. It's with this information that you can have an intelligent conversation worth your boss about realistic expectations.

Without this overall view, 1-2 or 20-30, you're going to have problems.

  • 1
    Only one software contractor is full-time on the project. The rest of us all have several other projects. At this point, "failing" means that there is a communication breakdown between the scientists and one of the contractors on the project (which makes it difficult to assess whether other components are also failing). Because of the communication breakdown, it's also not clear whether it's behind schedule. I've come to the conclusion that the most I can do is to determine a schedule and mediate communication.
    – msc
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 17:07

As a starting project manager, I found Project Management for Dummies to be be really helpful. With your academic background, you could read it in a weekend. The reason I recommend this book is that not only does it touch upon aspects of methodology, it also talks about soft-skills like motivating people etc. and it sets just the right tone, being both accessible and having enough "meat" for you to work with. It won't teach you to be the perfect project manager but it will get you on track and start you asking the right questions. It also deals with basic tools like Gantt Charts etc.

Methodologies like PRINCE2 and PMBoK are great but they take a while to get your head around - and it sounds like you don't have the luxury of time.

Of course, I am sure there are lots of other great books about project management but that is one I am very familiar with.

  • Hi Simon, this doesn't answer the question of how can the PM manage the project in only a few hours per week. We're looking for specific solutions in answers on PMSE, not broad references to other resources. Consider making an edit to improve your answer if you have a solution to this user's problem. If you need guidance, see How to Answer. Good luck! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:25
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    Hi - sorry you didn't like the answer. The idea was that he only has 2 hours a week. If he reads a book like the one I recommended, he'll be in a much better position to use those 2 hours constructively. I was worried that people mentioned things like Prince2 which will really eat into his time and probably discourage him. Fair enough if you consider it an inappropriate answer but that was my motivation :-) Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:32
  • Maybe you could elaborate on how it could help solve the problem or maybe point to a specific chapter in the book that applies to that situation. I think that would be a huge improvement. I think the big thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that the guy is spending 2 hours per week on the project. This seems perhaps slightly beyond what a book could solve, at least without context. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:34
  • Hi @Simon, just FYI, if you edit, I'll remove my downvote. Also, we're experimenting with how we use these votes a bit more to try and improve our site. Feel free to join the conversation: meta.pm.stackexchange.com/questions/478/using-downvotes-on-pmse
    – jmort253
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:40
  • Simon, thanks for writing. Since you got some criticism, I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that I found your answer helpful. Thank you for taking the time to provide your answer.
    – D.W.
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 22:32

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