Simplifying Research Project Management

Project management is too complex, and therefore project management in research is regularly avoided.

BUT – researchers can fix that with some simple approaches.

Project Managers – as a group – have devised great tools to keep things on track. However, for most participants, most of the time, keeping things updated is a pain. Something to be forgotten. Something to forget. And that is the biggest issue faced by project managers – people factors.

Fix 1: Don’t expect others to use your project management tool or approach.

And if the proponents of project management are not great at it – how can researchers be expected to do well at it? Especially when, you, as a researcher are probably anti-planning. How can you possibly plan research? If the experiment fails, then the entire plan is out the window. If the experiment works, the plan changes too.

Project management is a waste of time…

I totally agree. Spending time planning your research project like it is a building to complete is pointless. When we contract a building, we know what we are dealing with. We know the weather. We know the materials. We know what happens when we combine different materials in different ways. So, we can plan a three year construction project well in advance (the full 3 years) and down to a good level of detail (what will happen every week or day of that 3 years).

Fix 2: Don’t have a detailed plan covering your entire project or PhD. But do know how long you can spend on your project or PhD.

In software, they’ve come to the same conclusions as researchers – that construction, and manufacturing project management approaches are not useful. And that makes sense. It is impossible to clone a building. You can use the same plans, materials, people, etc. But it is not exactly the same as the one you just built. It cannot be. Yet, in software development that is possible. Once you have a working word processor, game, webpage or visualisation you can literally copy, and paste it or copy, and paste the data into it. You can share it as many times as you want. So, an approach that has quality control at gates. An approach that says you must have foundations before a wall. Walls before windows. Frame before roof. That’s not relevant.

Instead, if you are building something and you are not sure what it will look like or how it will work – like software, like an unfolding research experiment – you need the opportunity to conduct regular checks. Course corrections. In software this project management approach is called Agile. And it operates on a (roughly) monthly schedule. The users know how much they can code in a certain. So they don’t plan WHAT they code, they plan how much. The equivalent is not to plan what experiments that you will do, but to plan how many you will do.

Fix 3: Use an iterative project management approach.

Now, I already said don’t expect others to use your approach. And I hold by that. However, communication is key when it comes to successful research projects, and PhDs. So, even though people will not use your approach, you need to be able to communicate progress and next steps. And, given they are not likely to be interested in your project management, you need to be able to do it quickly. And it’s a way that other researchers will recognise, and at least understand. Gantt charts are great. But I’ve never met a researcher who wants to look at those. Knowing the whole project gives context, but must people just want to know what their role is, who they are waiting on, and who needs their output.

Fix 4: Use a simple project management tool, such as one-page-project-management.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has been supporting research portfolios, programs and projects for more than a decade. He knows the theoretical approach to project management as well as the practicalities of academic and research projects. He is a #pracademic. Richard’s strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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