I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The next of these is on the topic of risk management in project.
I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The first of these is on the topic of the driving priority in management of the project.
Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
A while back, I wrote about deadlines as a necessary part of managing projects, especially research proposals with firm submission dates and times. Having recently completed another mammoth grant application project (fingers crossed – results in a few weeks), I’ve recognized some distinct levels of strength that can help in both recognizing the need for and then establishing the right type and level of deadline.
The first of these is the lightest – the deadline of convenience. This is a loose internal deadline, established to encourage progress but not really tied to any external requirement. The convenience deadline recognizes basic courtesies like evenings, weekends and holidays as being down time, and is associated with the early stages of a proposal project, when many other elements (scope, budget, team) are still evolving. The convenience of this deadline is typically linked to the schedule of the deadline setter – what is best for them in this process – and guided by the overall tenor of the team: how much encouragement versus freedom do they need at this stage.
The next level up is middleweight – the deadline of dependence. Linked to other elements, such as institutional deadlines, anticipated time required for formatting, quotes, or signatures, or other key events like conference presentations or key meetings, these deadlines indicate the dependence of other things on this work (something else needs this to get done before it can proceed), or the dependence of this work on those other things (this project needs that other thing). In proposal development, there are a lot of dependence deadlines. The budget cannot be completed until the proposal body is written. The references cannot be finalized until the writing is done. The summary sections need the main proposal to be finished before thy can be written. (Notice a pattern here?) The signatures cannot be secured until there’s a substantial enough document and a reliable budget number.
This middleweight level is where deadline setting becomes both art and science. These deadlines cascade and link to one another like an elaborate acrobatic act, overlapping and connecting pieces of the project until it all comes together as a completed thing. The reality is much messier than that, of course – more like the assemblage of a multi-course dinner with no recipes. There will be adjustments throughout, to both deadlines and content (scope change), but the goal is still the same: the completion of the project.
In the case of a grant application or project proposal, there is also the heavyweight level – the deadline of consequence. Usually established by external stakeholders, these deadlines are immovable, with the consequence of complete project failure if they are not met: there is no coming back from missing a proposal submission deadline.
Deadlines of consequence can also occur within the project itself. There are sometimes firm, non-negotiable deadlines on things such as internal approvals, hiring opportunities, and vendor quotation expiry dates. Other key dates exist as milestones – fiscal year end, for example – that can become deadlines for spending or reporting. These should not be taken lightly, as there is little to no recourse when these are missed.
True project management would have you build the schedule forwards, determining the estimated time for each task or activity, considering the dependencies and relationships, constructing a critical path, and then calculating the completion date. More often, the reality is that schedule development is best done by looking at that ultimate deadline of consequence (the submission deadline) and working backwards to populate the schedule with dates and associated tasks that are needed.
Thinking about these various levels of deadline can help when considering building deadlines into your project schedule. Where are the deadlines you cannot miss (consequence)? Where should you put the ones that contribute to bringing the project elements together (dependence). And where can you put a few to best support and enable the team and the project to be successful (convenience)? For each deadline on the schedule, make sure you know which kind it is, so that you know how flexible (or not) it is and what else it is connected to. By keeping track of progress and activities against these deadlines, and adjusting as possible throughout, you’ll have the best chance of successful completion within the time available.
Last month, a colleague was up for a new job. After searching for some time, they at last had an interview for a project manager-research administrator-type role with an organization that had never had a position dedicated to that work. The research team had grown sufficiently over the past few years that they were now considering it. My colleague asked for some input, as they were working to “justify” the idea of a dedicated project management position to the team. There was no clear job description yet, so they asked if I “could shed some more light on your day to day as a project manager.” Happy to.
Why have a project manager?
1. It’s required.
2. It makes good business sense.
There is an increasing requirement from institutions and funders for responsible conduct of research (RCR) – both doing it and demonstrating it. The traditional concerns of RCR cover ensuring that work is:
In addition, the efforts required to secure funding for research continue to increase, with ever-challenged public and private funding sources, more competition, and higher standards for awards, as well as the en vogue requirement for matching funding or co-funding of research.
All of these mean that the demands on research leaders extend well beyond the conduct of research to include the ongoing demonstration of responsible conduct, including in areas that are time-consuming and often outside their areas of expertise and interest. With the researcher's time being the most valuable strategic asset of a department or institution, maximizing their time and energy to focus on the science is essential.
While it is important that research leaders and scientists have a good understanding of research management principles, more important is to have resources and infrastructure, in the form of a project manager or research administrator or both, to assist and support them. People in these roles in an organization can both free up the researcher's valuable time and better ensure that the requirements of RCR are being met.
As a research project manager, my day-to-day work is in exactly these roles with the research leaders, enabling their focus on science while maintaining and demonstrating RCR. This includes:
I’ve heard the argument from researchers that spending money on these functions and positions takes money away from research. While that may be true, I refer you to my short list of reasons above. Funders now often require these functions to be performed, and many often require or at least allow some of the funding award to be used for project management personnel. By extension then, these funds are allocated to support the management work, and so research activities are not eligible expenses for them. Regardless, whether you allocate money from the budget for management, or you allocate a valuable research resource like a leader or a research associate, the requirements of RCR must be met, and so it is more efficient and effective to spend those dollars on the specialized resource of a project manager.
It is difficult for less senior researchers to have access to the funds to support these roles. This is where the power of collaboration comes in. Junior researchers can pool their limited resources to engage and share project management and research administration expertise. As their own portfolios grow, so too will the requirement for project management expertise but also their means to be able to support it, resulting in the development of an expanded resource pool for them and their colleagues.
So when asked, “why should we have a project manager or research administrator for our team?”, the answer is, “why wouldn’t you?”
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.