Ensuring Project Success – 7 Key Steps for Project Managers

What is a project?  It’s a simple question that will receive many different answers.  A simple definition is that a project is a series of tasks that will be completed in order to reach a defined outcome.  Others may add that a project should have a defined start and end date.  PMI more specifically defines a project by going through five stages:

  1. Project Initiation
  2. Project Planning
  3. Project Execution
  4. Project Monitoring and Control
  5. Project Closure

No matter how big or small a project is, every project generally goes through these stages.  Each stage has many complexities within it.  Large projects can be very difficult simply by the way the project manager goes about defining the scope of the project, defining (clear?) outcomes, defining metrics to measure success, and identifying and mitigating risks and issues, etc. 

Pharmaceutical companies, given their rigorous, validated environments, can have excellent, well- defined project management processes.  Yet many projects (especially the larger ones) in the pharmaceutical industry struggle to achieve their goals.  The main reasons are not project management tools or processes.  Typically, projects do not reach their full value or success because of people. 

Aligning larger groups of people is tough work.  Anyone who has been on a big project cannot argue the difficulty of aligning groups of people.  Sometimes roles and responsibilities are not defined well enough, and this causes people tensions in the end.  Sometimes roles and responsibilities are well defined, but team members don’t read them.  Other times team members don’t agree with the roles and responsibilities.  This may be due to them believing the role should be defined differently or they just don’t want to do the work.  Regardless of these examples, it gets back to people working through project challenges.  It’s not easy. 

To make this more complicated, in the pharmaceutical industry almost every large project is cross-functional.  The challenge now becomes getting the people within each different function to understand how all the other functions work and what is crucial for each to operate efficiently. Integrating the functions and those crucial needs is necessary for a successful project outcome. 

How Can a Project Manager Maximize Delivery

So, what is the common thread across functions in a cross-functional project?  The project manager is one of the keys to success in delivering the promised value of a large project.   That’s a lot of pressure on this one person – but what can the project manager do in order to maximize the probability of delivering a successful project?  There are seven critical concepts that the PM needs to keep in mind:

  1. Defining and implementing a framework – The project should have defined work streams with workstream leads.  Each of the workstream leads is responsible for managing timelines, communicating updates, working through issue resolution, aligning on every aspect within their workstream, act as a subject matter expert to ensure project success, etc.  The workstreams are key contributors to helping the project manager make informed decisions.  In turn, the project manager will communicate updates to a steering committee consisting of senior leaders.  The structure enables the project to run at a detailed level while having a framework to resolve any issues.
  2. Communication/change management plans – Large, cross-functional projects typically span more than one year.  Having written communication plans that are reflected in the project plan are critical to allow the organization to understand how the project will affect them.  Each function may have a different impact or change, not to mention a different level of resistance to the change.  The communications should be sent by the leader of the function articulating the changes. 
  3. Defined roles and responsibilities – Roles and responsibilities definition should always be as specific as possible.  During the kickoff for the project, there should be a slide or two dedicated to the responsibilities of each team member, which is typically within a workstream and possibly for each function.  The information should not only contain the work that needs to be completed and when, but also how much effort over a given month will be required by that role.  This can be a rough estimate of 10%, 25%, 50%, 75% or 100%.  If the effort fluctuates over time, then simply define that in the slides.  Once the project kicks off, each workstream should have a slide that shows their work over the next month in detail and then the following two months in less detail with the definition provided above.
  4. Checkpoint meetings with workstream leads – The project manager should meet with the workstream leads on a defined basis, typically every week to start, then every other week.  These meetings are key to ensure alignment, discuss risks and to just gauge how the workstream lead feels about their work and the project.
  5. Steering committee meetings – These meetings are critical to remove roadblocks and for the project manager to feel support in their work.  The project manager is the key touchpoint for all team members.  Given this, support is critical.  The project manager needs to know how to let smaller issues and risks play out to resolution and know when to escalate larger issues.  Understanding this will allow the project manager to know when to truly ask for support so executives are not having their time wasted.  This is a fine line, but a crucial one.
  6. Practically communicated timelines – Almost everyone hates looking at someone else’s Microsoft Project plan.  It’s a great tool, but a lot of effort is required to understand someone else’s plan.  As a result, the project manager needs to practically communicate timelines.  Short-term and long-term reports should be created that allow everyone on the project to understand status and what it means to them.  This cannot be emphasized enough.  Otherwise, team members are blindsided by deadlines, issues occur, and more importantly, trust has been violated.
  7. Assign the right project manager- To start, let’s just say there are good project managers and project managers that are, well, not as good.  The assignment of different project managers can lead to much different project outcomes.  To maximize success for large, cross-functional projects, look for a project manager with the following traits:
    • Quick learner – Even the best project manager cannot know all the details of all the functions.  Therefore, the project manager needs to listen to the experts, learn quickly on the job, and be able to use this information to make better, informed decisions.  In addition, retaining this knowledge is key to making future decisions. 
    • Culture-minded – Some people may say the project manager must be skilled at conflict resolution, which is more likely to happen within a diverse group.  I agree, but more importantly, a project manager needs to be a good listener.  They need to understand a team member’s challenges, be empathetic, and genuinely try to help them.  Doing this will not only help to alleviate conflict and time spent on conflict resolution but more importantly, sets the culture for the project as one that emphasizes helping each other.  Project culture cannot be emphasized enough.  A project team forms quickly, starting a blank slate culture and rapidly developing a mini culture of its own. Culture is key and will crush any well-defined plans or objectives.
    • Knowledge of functions – The role of the project manager can be particularly demanding with cross-functional project teams in the pharmaceutical industry. There is so much (or really too much) information to learn on a process or function.  Consequently, while the project manager should be an expert at project management, he or she needs enough knowledge to understand the challenges of team members across the functions.

Projects in the pharmaceutical industry are typically long, cross-functional, and challenging.  Keeping these key project management elements in mind will help to create quality teams, quality project management processes, and ultimately quality results from even your most complex projects!

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