Best Practices for Keeping Research Projects on Track and Within Budget
It’s easy to get caught up in a rat race when conducting scientific research. Basic research, often carried out in an academic-type setting (e.g., research university, government research lab), tends to be hypothesis-driven or exploratory in nature rather than product-driven as in industry. Thus a basic research project may not have clearly defined goals, and unexpected results may alter the course of action at any given time.
Without established timelines or performance measures by which to track progress, it can feel like you are constantly racing against time and funding to produce results. However, traditional project management methods can be adapted for research projects to make lab work more efficient and productive by defining deadline-driven project deliverables and milestones, performance measures to evaluate progress, and the resources needed to get there. This information can be captured in a project management plan that creates a road map to guide successful project implementation.
The case for research project management
In the “Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty” report by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), project management is defined as “a series of flexible and iterative steps through which you identify where you want to go and a reasonable way to get there, with specifics of who will do what and when.”
Traditional project management methods have been standardized and successfully employed across a number of industries (e.g., construction management, software development) where projects have definitive timelines and product requirements. However, Kathy Huczko, a project management consultant, points out that basic research “focuses on gaining knowledge instead of driving for new product creation,” and thus traditional project management processes cannot be strictly followed.
Huczko underscores, “In industry, the project plan gets adjusted as learning occurs and is retargeted to the product the project is committed to producing. In conducting [basic research], the end result or product is not the significant part of the result; research is planned and conducted using the scientific method, intermediate products in the form of datasets and papers are produced, and the null hypothesis is true or not.” She continues, “Based on the progress and learning to date, the project may be replanned and take off in an entirely new direction. This major replanning would rarely be acceptable in industry but must be the accepted process in [basic] research.”
Further, Susan Singer, a Stanford certified project manager and consultant, writes in her article “Project Management in the Research Environment,” that “The higher levels of uncertainty—while customary, accepted, and even embraced in the scientific setting—would constitute unacceptable risk in most business settings.” Thus Singer advocates for research project management as a subdiscipline that can provide the tools and resources for researchers to better organize projects, but with flexibility in the planning process to evolve with the project as needed.
The need for project management skills in academic science
Lab and project management training has not traditionally been included in the curriculum for academic scientists but has been gaining traction in recent years. Institutions are starting to offer a variety of training options, from professional science master’s degrees to business management certifications for postdoctoral researchers.
These skills can also be learned on the job. Joshua Blodgett, assistant professor of biology at Washington University, honed his project management skills during a leadership role in a biotech start-up. He explains, “There was a lot of pressure to do project management well and [manage] everything that comes along with a multipart group that needs to execute on making a tangible product in a short time launch. That is industry; they need that product. There’s a sense of urgency that you might not normally have in dealing with a typical academic environment.”
Blodgett says once you learn these skills, there is no turning back, and he has successfully transferred these skills to his current academic role. As he explains, “My interactions with students and technicians are completely different than they would have been if I had taken a strictly academic path. I have an additional element of goal setting and organization that I insist on, and that directly comes from the goal setting and review process on a quarterly fashion from industry.” He continues, “That way of thinking around organization of experiments, having your outlines done, and then seeing a direct path to publication just makes you a more productive individual with not that much more effort.”
With the increasing trend in multi-institutional collaborations, funding agencies are also starting to require project management plans and budgeted project manager positions as part of collaborative proposals to ensure effective functioning of research teams. And as Singer references, “Eighty percent of high-performing projects are led by a certified project manager, yet barely half of projects actually employ one.” Therefore, it may be worth the investment to delegate project management responsibilities to a dedicated team member or consultant trained in these skills.
Overall, how does project management benefit academic researchers? As the HHMI report summarizes best, “While keeping creativity intact, project management can help reduce wasted effort, track progress (or lack of it) and respond quickly to deviations from important aims.” These factors can help researchers work smarter with available resources and better compete for funding by demonstrating a positive track record of project success.
Evaluating the potential of research projects
At the core of project management is the balancing act among the triple constraints of time, funding, and scope, while ensuring high quality and performance. While time is usually the limiting factor in industry, the uncertain funding environment in academic research may constrain projects to a greater extent. Additionally, the products of basic research are more variable. As the HHMI report explains, “Put simply, project management means allocating, using, and tracking resources to achieve a goal in a desired time frame. In a scientific setting, goals may include publishing a paper, obtaining a research grant, completing a set of experiments, or even achieving tenure.”
Therefore, careful evaluation of project ideas for their potential return on investment is the first step in the project life cycle. Such factors to consider include whether the project will result in additional funding faster, whether the resources are available to conduct the project, and whether there is enough time to obtain project results (e.g., preliminary results) before other impending deadlines. An additional consideration is to evaluate whether the project’s scope aligns with the overall theme of the research lab and the missions of any sponsoring organizations (e.g., affiliated institutions, funding agencies).
Creating a road map to guide successful project implementation
Once a project is selected, thorough planning is required to document the key requirements in a project management plan. This high-level document identifies the primary goals, objectives, and activities (i.e., scope); sets the strategy for the project (e.g., performance measures, budget, timeline); and outlines expectations for how work (e.g., communication, data management, quality control) will be conducted by the research team.
Integral to this document is a project timeline that clearly defines milestones (e.g., major events) and deliverables (e.g., project outputs), with corresponding performance measures that will allow progress to be tracked on a regular basis. As Singer explains, “Although the [planning] process is involved and sometimes tedious, what is produced is an easily scanned road map that will inform the team and any entities to which it must report of exactly what the benchmarks are, when they’ll be met, and what steps and resources are necessary to get there.”
This information must subsequently be communicated to the research team and relevant stakeholders to create a culture of shared ownership toward research goals and open communication throughout the project life cycle. A kickoff meeting can be held initially, and then regular touch points are built in to communicate changes, report on progress, and troubleshoot any anticipated project delays. The project management plan should be reviewed on an at least annual basis to make minor revisions and updates as needed.
Keeping the project on its critical path to completion
During the project implementation phase, continuous monitoring allows the researcher to regularly track progress toward the performance measures, anticipate any slowdowns in the process through risk analyses (i.e., “what-if ” scenarios), and take corrective actions as necessary to keep the project on task. Singer also explains that “you have to fail fast so that you can move on to the next possible solution that will accomplish the goal while not depleting the resources available to complete the project or necessitate more equipment, time, people, and/or money than were allocated from the start.”
Singer further emphasizes that this “process demands constant introspection and self-correction” throughout the project life cycle. As she explains, “You’re continuously looking back at your road map and asking, ‘Am I doing what I should be doing when I should be doing it? If not, why not? Are the things that matter being measured so that I can report the appropriate metrics when the time comes? Is my work tracking in such a way that my colleagues, who are reliant on my part of the project, will have the product or data necessary to do their work?’”
Blodgett applies a number of project management skills to ensure projects are following the critical path to completion. For example, when multiple lab members are working together on a project, he has them create an online spreadsheet with every step that affects each of the others in its own separate column, generating a Ganttstyle chart. As he mentions, “I use the online documents that track project progress, not so I can oversee every aspect but so I know where things are, and then the other person should know when things are coming.” He also outsources technical work as needed to prevent significant delays in project timelines.
As science can be unpredictable, the research project management process must remain flexible and adaptable to allow for new discoveries and lines of inquiry along the way. As the HHMI report concludes, “No matter how much you’ve invested in a project, it’s never too late to redirect or stop work altogether if you discover, for example, that another route is more promising than the main avenue of research, or a key premise was off base, or that someone publishes the work before you do.”
1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (2006) Chapter 7: Project Management in Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition.http://www.hhmi.org/developing-scientists/making-right-moves
2. Kridelbaugh, D. (2016) “Managing from a Distance.” Lab Manager. http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2016/03/managing-from-a-distance
3. Kridelbaugh, D. (2015) “Onboarding.” Lab Manager. http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2015/07/onboarding
4. Kridelbaugh, D. (2016) “Open Communication.” Lab Manager. http:// www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2016/03/open-communication
5. Project Management Institute (online). “Tools and Templates.” http://www.pmi.org/learning/tools-templates
6. Singer, S. (2010) “Project Management in the Research Environment.” Best Thinking. https://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/applied_science/project-management-in-the-research-environment
7. Singer, S. (online) Susan Singer, SCPM. http://www.singerscpm.com/