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June 22, 2022 Life Science Consulting

Project Management isn’t brain surgery, but why is it so hard?

Rob Turner, Ph.D. Senior VP, R&D Life Sciences Consulting

Here is the scenario: you are the leader of a group and you have been given the responsibility of driving the completion of a new initiative, an early or late-stage drug or devices program, or a software implementation. The completion date and budget are not perfect, but doable. But fast forward to lessons learned (post-project completion) and almost nothing about the project went as expected. It was a nightmare. You aged a few years, gained some pounds, suffered several mini-panic attacks, and maybe only had a few moments of peace throughout the implementation.

You wonder to yourself – when and why did everything go astray? Project management is not that hard. I am not doing brain surgery for goodness sakes!

Here are the top 8 scenarios we have observed and how you can address those items:

1. You did not spend time planning; you just jumped in and began the project. Unless you enjoy pain, never do this with mid-to-large projects. Avoiding planning and jumping into the work can be problematic as this prevents time considering “done,” timelines, impacts, and just the viewpoints of several stakeholders. There are some small projects called, “Just Do It,” but they are much smaller in scope and scale and can be quickly completed in under a few days. You, however, do not want to upgrade your global PV software with no or minimal planning.

  • Solution: Following a core project management methodology is not a recommendation, but a requirement. There is a reason why you develop a charter, project plan, definition of done, etc. This structure allows to truly think through how to implement the project, any potential dependencies or impacts, aligned stakeholders, and whether the assigned timeline is truly realistic. Socializing the approach during planning also allows you to firm up the approach, increasing the cross-functional buy-in and quality of your implementation design.

2. Your boss wants you to use Agile to deliver the project, but a team member wants Waterfall, and another wants <Insert Cool Name> causing rifts and delays on project execution. This typically results in a methodology that is chosen that may not be the best fit for the project or the correct methodology is selected, and unhappy stakeholders are needlessly questioning the efficacy of the implementation since their preferred approach was not chosen. Either way, project execution is negatively impacted.

  • Solution: There are a number of amazing project management methodologies to successfully to drive a project. Most people know the cool name of the approach but have no clue what it is about. Each methodology has a specific use and may not be ideal for your project. Whatever project management methodology is used should be discussed and vetted with the team so that all understand why that approach is being used, how it will be used, and why others were not selected. They should also receive training on the selected methodology to understand its core principles.

3. You have a full-time job, but you are also the ongoing project manager. Globally, for the average person, a work week is 35-45 hours. If this is a high priority project that requires a full-time PM commitment, where is this person going to find additional time to put together status reports, run team meetings, manage the project plan, address issues/risks, etc.? Asking this person to do both will ultimately result in delays, then failure.

  • Solution: Given that working 60-80 hours weekly is unsustainable, a few things can be considered after defining the ongoing time commitment of the PM: transfer the current activities of the resource so that they have the bandwidth to be the project manager, find someone else to be the project manager, or reconsider timing of the project (if the original resource is the best person to be the PM).

4. Your project manager has no clue what they are doing, but no one wants to take them off of the project. As leaders in organizations, it is wonderful to want to give someone a growth opportunity. But not everyone is ready for “prime time.” Putting the wrong person in charge of a project could cause unforced compliance, process, technical, or financial problems and definitely delays.

  • Solution: Every project requires the commensurate level of project management leadership and experience. If a growth opportunity is desired, then perhaps pairing your resource with an experienced PM is a better option. Alternatively, it may seem unkind, but knowing when to pull an underperforming project manager and replacing them with the appropriately skilled leader is the correct business decision and the true kindness to the project team.

5. Timelines are hopeful and suggestions to your team. A project plan should not be as fantastical or as optimistic like whatever comes out of a summer blockbuster movie. It needs to be rooted in a reality that reflects the state and urgency of the project. Further, it must be the project team’s respected source of truth.

  • Solution: Build a living, breathing project plan that captures the scope of what needs to be accomplished while inputting realistic timeframe durations, constraints, and logical time away (e.g., holidays). Speak with a range of colleagues in developing and pressure-testing the plan. Finally, hold the team accountable to achieving these timelines and escalate if there is any risk to missing these completion dates.

6. The project is running very late, has several risks and issues coming up, but the project status is green. This is what we call delusional. There is no universe where the project is delayed, there are numerous issues and risks, and everything is fine. All too often, project teams do this as no one wants to be the contrarian and point out that not everything is ok. Battling the temptation to not present everything as perfect is tough, but the alternative is undergoing a too-late, red-faced discussion to senior leadership about why downstream financial or compliance goals cannot be met, per the communicated timelines.

  • Solution: Simply put – present the status as it is and proactively address the challenges. Proactively communicate any changes in timing, what that means to the project, and make a risk-based decision on how best to move forward. Engage senior leadership early in the process, not late, so that they have a realistic level of transparency and engagement in the project’s performance.

7. You recently implemented very cool and expensive PM software which you thought would make all of your project implementations successful, but that did not happen. Technology is an enabler to realizing your process goals. It should not be the core of your process. It is no substitute for implementing your project using core project management fundamentals. If the project management approach is flawed, then the software will only produce beautiful, but flawed outputs.

  • Solution: (1) Deliver your projects using core project management principles based on PMI (or comparable) methodology. Use technology to support delivery of the project. (2) Determine how to effectively utilize your PM technical solution (e.g., JIRA, Microsoft Project, Monday.com, Smartsheet) to meet the needs of your project or organization. Each has different strengths for different companies and project types. Each also has their own learning curve. Some companies even use Excel as their primary project management tool!

8. You ignored your colleagues, resisted the option to get external support, and now everything is in shambles. While no one doubts your (or your colleagues’) intelligence and ability to drive a project, external organizations can provide that additional support, brain power, and resources that your group cannot, for the moment.

  • Solution: Understand the project management need and realistically consider whether your staff or other internal resources have the bandwidth and expertise to execute the project in a timely, a high-performing manner. If not, proactively identify and engage a partner that can support you in a manner that directly meets your needs.

The above are not the only reasons why projects struggle, but these are some of the common reasons we have observed. One key take-away from reading this is that you should be realistic, proactive, and ready to make common-sense decisions that meet the needs of your projects. The other is that yes, project management is much easier than brain surgery, you just need the right approach.

If you do need help with project implementation, the talented team at ProPharma Group would love to help you!



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