Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis

Project Management

Do you have a very clear idea what your research project is trying to achieve? Why is the project important? What happens if the project is successful? Is the project draining resources that could be used more productively on other projects? How will you know when the project is complete?  In industry, time is money—your project needs to be focused and productive or it will be canceled. In academia, intellectual freedom creates the temptation to follow every interesting lead, and you risk becoming sidetracked, spread too thin, or making slow progress.  Project management is a set of skills that helps create and maintain focus on the desired outcomes, and maximizes the use of available resources (people, equipment, funds, etc.).

Manage Yourself as Your Own Business

Whether you are a new graduate student or an experienced industrial researcher, whether a team leader or a group member, you should think about managing yourself as if you are your own “business”.

As a team member, your individual success is going to be heavily influenced by the success of the whole team. Managing yourself will keep your own part of the project on track, will allow the project leader to focus on the big picture issues, and will set a good example for other members of your team. By having defined goals, a sound plan of attack, and an unrelenting focus on the desired outcomes, you become a tremendous asset to your team and maximize your chances of team and individual success. If you don’t, your team leader will have to spend time “micro-managing” your activities and may choose not to work with you in the future.

As a team leader, effective management will enable you to maximize the productivity of your team members, which will of course give the project greatest likelihood of success. As a seasoned project manager, you will notice and value these skills in your team members.

Develop Your Project Management Skills

Project management skills take effort and practice to develop but are essential to your success as a researcher.  As a researcher in CEBC, you may be working only with your faculty advisor or may be working as part of a larger team. Developing a project management plan is equally important in both cases. Be assured that any time and effort in planning up front will be rewarded in the long run.

Also realize that there is no one “correct” way to do things—different approaches work for different people, different groups, or different projects. If you have any tips or suggestions, feel free to share those with us as well. Even experienced project leaders can learn something new.

Step 1 - Define Project Goals

Defining effective goals may be the single most important part of the project. The goals of your project describe the set of desired project outcomes. Some common characteristics of well-defined project goals are listed below.

  • Goals should be specific and measurable:  If you are precise in identifying what the desired outcomes are, then you are more likely to achieve them. If your goals are not specific, it is difficult to lay out a clear plan of attack. If the goals are not measurable, then you won’t be able to definitively determine when you have achieved them. Additionally, if the goals are not specific, then each team member may have a different idea of what the team is trying to achieve!
  • Achieving the goals should create value:  If the project is successful, it should create value for your company or organization; if it doesn’t then why are you spending time and money on it? When doing applied research the value could be, for example, an improved catalyst that increases selectivity and in turn increases profit. In fundamental research, defining value can sometimes be a little more challenging but is still critical. If your project addresses a fundamental scientific question, will its success enable a new field of research or have potential commercial applications? Journal papers, patent applications, and dissertations are great and may have value, but they can result from both successful and unsuccessful projects, and thus are not suitable as project goals.
  • Project goals should be ambitious: There are a number of terms for it…step-out, game-changing, transformational, high-risk/high-reward, and so forth. Most companies and federal funding agencies are interested in research that has the potential for significant and widespread impact. So-called “incremental” projects are becoming rarer, even in traditionally conservative companies like P&G or ExxonMobil. As one CEBC industry member put it, “incremental is dead.” Therefore, your project goals should be ambitious, and should challenge your team to achieve even more than they might think is possible.
  • Project goals should be realistic and time-bound: While projects should be ambitious, also realize that time is precious and research dollars are hard to come by. Therefore there should be some realistic expectations and time limits on the project—striking this balance will come with experience. If you are working on a project to develop a prototype of a “hot tub time machine” without a time limit, you could easily spend 50 years of your career trying to achieve that goal. Odds are your effort could be better spent on other projects. Setting timelines and milestones is covered more in the next section.
  • Project goals should have an appropriate scope: When defining your project goals, it is sometimes beneficial to also define what you will not do, in order to limit the scope.  Certainly you do not want to limit the creativity of your team members, but there are often constraints that the project must adhere to. Perhaps the project budget only allows for one or two researchers. Clearly you can’t do as much with two people as you can with ten! So it may be necessary to limit some aspects of the project. As another example, if you know a particular type of catalyst support will cause unwanted side reactions in your process, you can limit your catalyst screening project to exclude that class of supports. Identifying the scope of the project can help maintain focus.

Work with your project leader and other collaborators to articulate the project goals, and ensure that everyone clearly understands them. The goals should be documented in written form, and in many cases it would be wise to get signatures of agreement from all participants. As the project progresses, the team should periodically revisit the project goals to ensure that the project, as defined, is on-track, and still worth doing. Occasionally, it may be necessary to modify the project goals, but there should be a clear justification for doing so. If you are frequently changing your project goals, it is an indication that the project was not well defined in the first place. Any changes to project goals should also be documented, approved, and signed.

Step 2 - Develop Timelines, Milestones and the Action Plan

Now that everyone agrees on the project goals, how do you go about achieving them? Can the project be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts? What aspects of the project can be done in parallel and what must be done in a particular sequence?

Identifying Milestones

Milestones are significant accomplishments that you expect as your project moves towards success. Milestones and goals share many of the same characteristics: they should be specific, measurable, and time-bound. They serve to help the team evaluate the rate of progress, and can help determine if a change in strategy is needed, or even if the project is definitely not feasible and should be phased out. If a project is not going to meet its goals, it is better to determine this as soon as possible, instead of finding out only at the end of the project period. This way, resources can be reallocated to more promising projects.

Setting Timelines and Action Plans

Setting milestones and timelines go hand-in-hand. One can work backward from the project goals, or work “bottom-up” by constructing task lists, but in reality it is usually a combination of both. The timelines should be aggressive but reasonable. Delays almost always occur, so try to anticipate where they are most likely happen (lead-time for ordering equipment, for example). When possible, group tasks that can occur simultaneously.

Creating graphical milestone charts, such as the example below, can aid in the planning process. Is one particular step a bottleneck in the project? Are all the team members and physical resources being utilized efficiently?

Since they are only a means to an end, milestones and timelines are somewhat more flexible than the overall project goals, and can be fine-tuned as the project progresses. Unexpected experimental results may require the team to re-evaluate the work plan; just remember that your focus is still on achieving the overall project goals.

Step 3 - Execute the Plan and Periodically Review the Project

Your project cannot succeed if you don’t effectively communicate with the team members. Good communication skills require effort, practice, and more effort. When presenting information to others, either orally or in written form, the burden is on you to convey the necessary information with the minimum amount of effort required on the part of the listener or reader.

  • Meetings: Everyone agrees that there are always too many meetings! Yet well-organized meetings are essential for good teamwork (the key is well-organized!). It is essential that everyone knows why the meeting is needed and what is to be covered, and that everyone is prepared in advance (have an agenda). End the meeting with a summary of action items; it is also a good idea to send a written summary of conclusions and action items afterwards as confirmation. Keep meetings focused: a well organized 30-minute meeting will be much more effective than a 60-minute meeting where nobody is prepared.
  • Charts and Tables: Well thought out charts and tables can communicate a tremendous amount of information in a short amount of time. Poorly thought out charts and tables will confuse people and waste time. Ask yourself “what is the point I’m trying to make?” and then think about how best to convey that message clearly. Learn by example, both good and bad, from other’s presentations.
  • Written Communication: Developing excellent writing skills takes time and practice, but is essential for success. Written project summaries should restate your goals and milestones, succinctly summarize the progress relative to those milestones. Within the first 30 seconds, the reader should have a pretty good idea of where the project stands. Do not fill pages full of details and bury the conclusions at the end (or worse, leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions). Do not repeat basic information that everyone already knows. Avoid long, rambling e-mails and use appropriate subject lines, especially since many people read all their e-mail on cell phones. Do you ever find yourself skimming the first sentence or two of someone else’s long e-mail and then assume you know what the rest of it says? Organize your writing to make it easy for the reader and get the point quickly.
  • Following-up: Even though you are well organized and focused, others on your team may not be, or may be working on several projects at once. If you’re the project leader, you will need to follow up and send reminders about action items, meetings, and deadlines. If you are a team member, you can make things easier on the project leader by acknowledging assignments and providing status updates—you will also make a lasting impression as a person who is easy to work with…team leaders never forget those people.

Maintaining Focus

Maintaining focus on the project goal is a challenge. Researchers are curious by nature, and want to follow leads and explore new ideas. These new ideas are the essence of doing exciting research, and creativity should be encouraged. However, if this curiosity distracts you from the task and hand, then you jeopardize the success of the project and the whole team.

        As a team leader, one possible way to manage this is to allow your team members to allocate some small percentage of their time, say 10%, to exploratory ideas or side projects. If a preliminary experiment from a side project shows promising results, assess whether that side project warrants standing on its own as a project, either assigned to a different team, or postponed to a later date. But do not let these side projects detract from your current project goals.

        In addition to the general long-term timelines, such as the example shown on the previous page, it may be useful to create more specific short-term timelines (perhaps weekly or monthly) for yourself. One way to do this is to create a weekly chart which for each day has “planned activity” and “actual activity” columns. This way you not only plan out what you will work on, but can track how you actually used your time. The results may surprise you at first!  

Periodic Review of Progress and Overcoming Obstacles

As part of the planning process, the team should schedule project status reviews. Depending on the length and complexity of the project it could be quarterly (3-months), monthly, or even weekly. The project’s progress should be measured against the goals and milestones set forth. Are all of the tasks on pace? Are you in danger of missing a milestone? Does the general strategy and research plan still make sense in light of the recent results? If one part of the project is ahead of schedule while another is behind, should you shift some of your resources?

Part of project management is to identify potential obstacles or pitfalls before they occur, and to have contingency plans of how you might overcome those challenges. If one hypothesis doesn’t work, do you have an alternate strategy?  If a key piece of equipment were to unexpectedly break down, are there possible back-up plans to keep things moving? Does the project’s success hinge on one person’s particular knowledge or expertise? What if he/she becomes seriously ill? What if upper management decides to move up your deadlines or slash your budget? How flexible is your timeline and scope? You don’t have to have definitive plans for all these scenarios, but by at least thinking about them ahead of time, your team will be better prepared and won’t panic in the case of an “emergency.”

Step 4 - Endgame: Project Success or Shutdown?

So your project was successful. Great job. Now what? Achieving the project goals has created some potential value, but someone has to take advantage of it. Do you have the proper intellectual property protection in place? What are the deliverables from the project, and to whom should they be delivered? If you are in a company, does the project “graduate” to a different group for pilot plant testing? If you are in a university, is there a strategy for technology transfer? Have the people who would benefit from your successful project been briefed ahead of time, so that they might begin their own planning?

Or, perhaps your project is not on track to meet your milestones or cannot reach the project goals. Should it be cancelled right away in order to move on to other projects? Many times the science or the economics makes a project unsuccessful despite the skill of the project leader or the brilliance of the research team. Most high-risk/high-reward type projects will not ultimately lead to commercial success, but that is why the ones that do should have a high potential payoff. The question is what can you learn from the project? Were there some useful ideas or knowledge gained from the project that can be useful in other projects, or even become new projects of their own? Was the project on the right track and simply ran out of time or funds? Was the premise underlying the project flawed? Were there external economic considerations that doomed your project? How can you better manage yourself and future projects?

If you are skilled in project management and communication, there are likely many more projects waiting for you. On the other hand, if you are unfocused, a poor communicator, and not delivering on time, people will not want to work with you, even if you are a genius in your area of expertise. Your project management skills must continue to grow throughout your career, as you continue to accept greater responsibilities.

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