Managing a successful research project (independent, in-house, or sponsored) is a lot like managing a war. To quote the ancient Chinese sage Sun Tzu (the author keeps a copy of The Art of War by his bed-stand) in Chapter III – Strategic Attack:
“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
Each step of the project is like a battle, and the war is the process, or campaign, through which you achieve your product, or to continue the military analogy, objective. The R&D Manager is the General, and a good General is a good inspirer (leader) and manager of men-in-arms. If a General rushes his armies haphazardly into the battlefield with no foresight and little foreplanning, their fate is up to the cruel dice of luck. The odds are against success. If the R&D Manager knows him/herself (and his/her team) and the process through which to create a plan and see it through, the odds are better, but not great. If one knows the enemy, the other players in the game, the risks and benefits, the mission objective and how and when to achieve it realistically; as well as themselves—then they shall succeed in nearly every battle and rest easy when they do inevitably reach failure.
Understand what your project is trying to achieve.
Know what you are going for, “start with the end in mind.” A successful research project requires some vision. Not a whole lot necessarily, but without knowing your objectives, and the meaning of success, it is hard, if not impossible, to stay on target. Furthermore, as Dr. Robin Henderson writes, know the physical outputs of your product, and the outcomes that come from said outputs. Think several steps ahead—particularly in Applied Science. Thus, you can best position yourself for the next project!
Knowing the outcomes is especially important when it comes to managing your stakeholders. Know that the good General (the good R&D Manager) usually serves a higher power, or powers (following the analogy, a PhD student pursuing an independent project is a bit of a rogue, but even rogues need sponsors.) These are the stakeholders, and their power comes in four types (Criteria, Disempowered, Comprehensive, Operational) along two axes (What needs done; How is it done?) Keep in mind what your grant sponsors, the suits in the high tower, and/or the client & customers want out of your product–always. Analysis of the project’s stakeholders, their impact, their dynamics, and their expectations shapes the scope of the project.
There are other steps that must be kept in mind, and applied regularly.
Use a timeline! A Gantt Chart is your friend. If the time it takes to do something seems a little too short, it probably is. People (especially me) habitually underestimate the time it takes to do something. Plan accordingly
Know and beat the risks – Plan for contingencies. To quote the master Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Same with R&D Projects – to identify key risks a Risk Matrix is an easy way to plot out potential obstacles (and how they may relate to each other).
Reports and Meetings – stay in touch with your team and vice versa. Command & Control
Keep to your budget – An army marches on its stomach. R&D can’t happen without capital, and there is only so much. Know your commitments and stay realistic when requesting/allocating money.
You are the chef and project management is your recipe; be creative, lead your kitchen, know the food, and master the process.
Henderson, R. (2010). Research Project Management Key Concepts. In My Consultants. Retrieved May 24, 2016, fromhttp://www.myconsultants.net/higher- education/documents/REsearchPMHandout.pdf