Top 5 Reasons Why Your Biotech Needs a Project Manager

If you work at a biotech or small pharmaceutical company, you are under the microscope. You have investors waiting for the next bit of good news to raise confidence in your hard work. Your budget is limited because all funds are being used to accumulate that new data and generate the next press release. Your staff, (clinician, statistician, regulatory strategist, formulation lead, and others) are working hard. And who’s missing from this picture? The project manager…at least most of the time. It always surprises me how long a small company will limp along without a project manager. Why do they do that? Because they don’t think they need one or it’s not a high enough priority. It turns out there are at least five reasons why you need a project manager.

Why Hire a Project Manager?

  1. To build high performing teams. Oh, I know, I can see you rolling your eyes already. I was once the project manager of the most dysfunctional drug development team. There were two co-chairs. One was always missing from team meetings and the other was very inexperienced. Other team members came to meetings unprepared to present data or make decisions. And finally, the guidance from senior management was unclear.  Each goal given to the team contradicted the previous one. That team spent about five months floundering and accomplished nothing.  We had no strategy, no timeline, no documented results of our pre-clinical work.  We needed to complete everything in two months. All we had was a group of members that ran in circles. A good project manager will turn the situation around to get a team like this to perform. He/she will make adjustments such as:
  • change team members
  • set clear expectations
  • educate the leader
  • experiment with different techniques to focus the team to build morale.
  1. To focus teams on the right issues at the right time. When you are in the business of drug development, there’s a lot of ground to cover. There are reasons why it’s so expensive. This includes a lot of experiments, trials, long timelines and an infinite number of decisions to make. It’s very easy for a team to get bogged down in one topic and forget everything else.  If you are in Phase I of a project, you want to avoid having your drug development teams worrying about indications in Phase III. It is the job of the project manager to think about what decisions to make now vs later.
  2. To manage vendors. If you are a small company, you are likely relying on many vendors at any given time to provide various services. Who is tracking their performance? Timelines? Budget? It’s best to put this in the hands of the project manager. They know the interdependencies between vendors and also when to escalate concerns. They can pinpoint an issue before it becomes a problem, saving you money and time in the long run.
  3. To provide unbiased perspective. I have also managed teams that can’t seem to take off their rose-colored glasses. Despite poor pharmacokinetics, a failed proof-of-concept study, and major formulation issues, they still hang on to the project. After many years of hard work, they are passionate about the product. They then no longer see the product for what it is. That’s ok, as long as you have someone else on the team to balance out the unfounded optimism. The project manager can see the product through the eyes of management and challenge the team.
  4. To manage senior management. What does that mean? Senior management can actually be a detriment to the team at times. Especially at a small company. This is because all levels of the organization share the same close quarters and see each other a lot. It’s too easy for the CSO to stop by everyone’s desk inquiring about the status of things.  This can lead to asking too many questions before the team has had an opportunity to establish a position. This behavior can become problematic and distract the team if it’s not controlled, especially as the company grows. In my experience, team members tend to tolerate this behavior to an extent. The project manager should set ground rules with senior management. Together, they should agree on how often teams need to provide updates and the scope of those updates. The project manager is often in the best position to frame those updates for the audience.  They can do this by making them as concise as possible, and ask for clear decisions from management. I realize that a lot of these skills are “soft” and are not always appreciated amongst the scientific community we work with. That is because the scientific community doesn’t practice them.  This is exactly why you need them.

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