Essentials Elements to Project Management During Operational Disruption in Life Science
Effective project management can be difficult for any organization, especially for life sciences organizations responding to operational change from the COVID-19 pandemic. Project management extends beyond being the gatekeepers of a project’s schedule, budget, and scope. What takes good project management to great project management results in successful projects that can improve collaboration, productivity, strategic alignment, and overall profitability within an organization.
In life sciences, successful projects mean improving human health and positively impacting the lives of patients, whether it is implementing a new electronic Trial Master File system (eTMF), developing quality-focused Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for a department, or receiving FDA approval for a product. Each successful project contributes to the development of those organizations and to the greater good of improving human health.
The top three essential elements to project management during an operational disruption are communication, transparency, and adaptability. By consistently incorporating these three elements in project management, you can promote respect and inclusion, instill autonomy within your project team, and increase your project team and stakeholders’ capacity and trust for change.
According to the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge from the Project Management Institute, about 75-90 percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating. Typically, in project management, the 5 Cs (Correct grammar and spelling, Concise expression and elimination of excess words, Clear purpose and expression directed to the needs of the audience, Coherent logical flow of ideas, and Controlling flow of words and ideas) are the communication rules. However, during disruptions within a project (e.g., a global health pandemic), there should be a 6th C: Consider the connection, when communicating with project stakeholders.
When approaching communication, especially if the message is one that may have a large impact, it is important to consider the connection you have with the recipient of your message (a project stakeholder) and the connection the recipient has with the project. You may be communicating the same message to multiple project stakeholders, but each communication requires specific tailoring based on your connection with the stakeholder and the stakeholder’s connection to the project. For those crucial messages, use connections to your advantage to strategically wordsmith your message to the recipient. Metaphorically, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and think about how you would like the message to be delivered if you were the recipient. Take into consideration the incentives the stakeholder has for the success of the project, the personal impact of project failure to those recipients, and what their criteria is for defining project success. From there you can frame the impact of your message around the recipient’s key aspects and metrics of the project.
Communication also provides an opportunity to build a stronger connection and trust with your recipient, enhancing future communications. Do not be afraid to be transparent and vulnerable with your project stakeholders. You can inform the project stakeholder you would like to have a better connection to help promote success within the project. You can do this by asking the recipient what is most important to them regarding this project and track their priorities for future reference when providing tailored project communications to that recipient. Building a stronger connection with the recipient can make it easier to deliver communications, especially difficult messages. From the recipient’s point of view, hearing impactful news from a colleague you trust is easier than hearing it from an acquaintance.
Not only does transparency come into consideration when discussing tailored project communications, it can also play a large role in keeping the project team and key stakeholders engaged. When a project team feels empowered to be transparent, team members are more likely to ask for help and share what they don’t know, share honest status updates, and are not afraid to escalate issues or risks. Transparency can also enhance collaboration and productivity while boosting overall morale. A missed task can be catastrophic to a project, especially a project with many dependencies. Enhancing transparency can help the project team work together to identify any barriers and possible solutions to the barriers, decreasing the risk of missed milestones, and accelerating risk mitigation.
With the shift to remote work, creating a system that allows the project team and stakeholders to virtually access important project information easily and efficiently is crucial and requires more technology than ever before. From a stakeholder’s perspective, it is important to have transparent visibility into the project, with accurate status updates regarding scope, schedule, and budget that are easily accessible and digestible. Having a clear view of project progression can reduce the ambiguity of productivity, especially when the whole project team is working from home, resulting in informed and happier stakeholders.
No matter how perfect a Project Plan is, the unexpected never fails to appear, requiring change and pivoting from original plans. This change can be due to resource availability, a decrease in budget, or an unforeseen circumstance (like a global health pandemic) that shifts operational structure, and it is important to be adaptable as the changes occur. Workers have had to adapt to many changes within the last year and a half, and their capacity for change is dwindling. Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management research indicated in the most recent study that 73% of organizations reported being near, at, or past the point of change saturation, indicating a limited capacity for change.
An adaptable project manager can help increase a project team’s capacity for change. Adaptability and transparency go together; without transparency, adaptability is very difficult to promote, and you are faced with resistance to change. When transparency is a core value of a project team, the team members are more likely to honestly express their ideas and concerns over a change. Allowing the project team to have a sense of control over the change through decision-making can increase adaptability. If it is not feasible to include the project team in decision-making regarding the change, reassuring the team their concerns are heard and using their feedback in contingency plans also increases adaptability.
Rebecca was a project manager working with a project team that was disgruntled from delays due to the client making last-minute requests. Rebecca called an ad hoc meeting with the project team to discuss the strategy for getting the project back on track and delivered on the promised date. Rebecca began the meeting with vulnerability and transparency, indicating her concerns for the project. Rebecca then indicated her understanding of the team’s irritation due to the recent project changes and what she could do to assist the team with completing their tasks. Instead of telling the team to not ask questions and just get the work done, she created a space for an open discussion for all project team members to contribute. A few different members of the project team spoke up regarding their confusion over the new changes and this led to a conversation on the best path forward to complete the client’s requests. From there, Rebecca was able to express the client’s needs for the recent changes, answering a few of the team’s questions, and the meeting ended with full team engagement. Taking the time to address the project team’s concerns and questions, valuing their input, and letting the team contribute to the solution resulted in increased team morale and acceptance of change, leading to the completion of the project.
Communication can also assist with a team’s adaptability. The word ‘change’ typically has negative connotations associated, so emphasizing the benefits of the change in your communications can promote a calm response from your team. Using these tactics discussed – framing the impact of the change around the team’s priorities and positively communicating the change – can enhance a team’s adaptability to any change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a complete disruption in healthcare and how clinical trials are carried out, resulting in many Project Plan revisions, rescoping activities, the announcement of delays, and change requests. It is important to remember we are all working towards a goal of improving human health, and we cannot do it alone. By using the three essential elements previously outlined (communication, transparency, and adaptability), you can greatly increase the probability of success within your projects, while building stronger connections, promoting respect and inclusion, and decreasing resistance to change in your team.