- Organization - the leaders and teams count on the project manager to know where everything is at any time, or at the very least be quick about finding out. Everything from key documents to samples to visitors - the project manager is the shepherd.
- Communication - moving information around the team is the task that occupies most of the PM's time, which is why so much time is spent on email. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively, both their own information and the information from others (describe to the PI in 50 words or less why something is not eligible as co-funding) is essential to everything else on this list. Here the PM functions as both translator and operator, connecting those that need to share info and ensuring that they do, as well as disseminating information throughout the team in a language that is meaningful to the group and audience.
- Relationship building - to accomplish any of this, the PM needs to have the trust and confidence of the leader and team. Building relationships with both the individuals and the group help to ensure that the PM receives all the information needed to manage the project and is consulted on key decisions where the organization or direction of the project may be affected. Read: PM as buddy and consigliere.
- Problem-solving - while the main challenges on a research project should be in the experiments and the data, today's institutions and funders bring with them a host of management and administrative challenges. The PM needs to be knowledgeable about the rules and relationships, anticipate where the challenges may come from as the science finds its way towards its objectives, and work proactively where possible to finesse the funding and the administration to remove bottlenecks. This also means occasionally intervening in the project and stopping activities that are not within scope/budget/rules for the project, which is usually not perceived by the teams as problem solving, but it is: it would be a very large problem if project activities or expenses were not accepted by the funder. This is the PM as engineer - both locomotive and the other kind - designing and enabling mechanisms within the project for a smooth operation, and running ahead and pulling switches on the track to keep the project away from spot where the bridge is out.
- Dedication - being committed to the success of the project and the team. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes not. In my world, the "why" of a project is usually very compelling - curing cancer is hard not to care about - but there are projects that are less interesting - example: developing new policy around acquisition of IT hardware. In any case, the PM needs to identify why the project is important, and important to them, and use that as their fuel; they'll need it when they find themselves answering emails into the wee hours or wading through the minutiae of ledger items in financial reporting. From the lofty to the mundane, the PM needs to care about the entire project and also be able to use that dedication to inspire commitment in others. The PM needs to be as dedicated as a nurse to a patient, and to occasionally pick-up some pom-poms and cheer on the team.
- Intuition - the least clear of all of these, I call these "spidey-senses". There is sometimes more going on than what you can be told, and the PM needs to intuit where attention is needed. While intuition is essential for problem-solving, it also encompasses a deep knowledge of the team and partners to both anticipate and manage risks, and considerable and diverse experience to recognize the signs of opportunity and threat. Part bloodhound and part superhero, the PM needs to know before others on the team where problems might occur and which way to go to avoid them.
It would be great in the research project management world to have the capacity (and the funding, of course) to allow us to engage interns or trainees, but in the research world it is not conceivable these days to spend funding on much of anything that is not supporting the science. What we have been able to develop is a Jedi-like approach to the team structure, where newer staff are paired with one or more veterans to help learn the ropes and learn through doing and observing. And perhaps a Borg-like collective of knowledge that makes the whole better than any individual part.