Importance of project management in research and development

Research and development is a big part of many businesses. The business world and the interests of customers are not static so neither should your business be. By undertaking R&D you can drive your business forward through innovation and attempt to gain a competitive edge over others in your sector. Although R&D sounds like an epic undertaking, it is scalable and controllable. This means that research and development can be a series of small, ongoing projects rather than one overarching one. The key to successful R&D projects is great project management, which will break projects down into the following stages.

Key concepts

You can’t begin a project without knowing what it is for. Research and development should be about working towards your wider business goals, and improving your business incrementally. You might want to look at areas like saving money in a process or department, branching out into a new sector, or improving your products or creating new ones. Each of these concepts would be individual projects, with different teams and processes.

Once you know what you want to do, the project should be analysed systematically. Following this process will enable you to answer the following questions:

  • What are the stages of your project?
  • What are the costs?
  • What are the likely returns?
  • Who will be involved?
  • What are your goals?

Initiating projects

Before you can begin a project, you need to get the backing of your directors and stakeholders. If you have been thorough when answering the questions posed above, and have a firm grasp of what you want to do and what you need to do to achieve it, you can approach your stakeholders and pitch your ideas to them.

If everyone is in agreement then you can begin your project. If not, then a good project manager knows how to resolve any differences or, when necessary, to go back to the drawing board.

Defining projects

Be clear from the beginning on what will constitute success with regards to this project. This will help you to put down clear, measurable goals that you can work towards. Use the SMART principle to plan your goals can be useful. These are:

  • Specific: Identify exactly what it is you wish to achieve.
  • Measurable: Create criteria that establish when you have completed the task
  • Achievable: Ensure that your goal can be attained with the resources available to you
  • Relevant: Make sure the projects ultimate completion will be of benefit to your company
  • Time-bound: Create a timeline and stick to it.

Doing this will not only help you to plan ahead, but also help with reviews as your project progresses, so that you can adequately measure how the project is going and make changes if required.

Planning the work

The most critical part of any project is the project management plan. Not only does this document provide information about the things you’ve discussed so far, including your goals and objectives, it also sets out a strict plan of action for all involved members to follow. You can use the plan to outline things like the timeline for work and important milestones to be reached, but also expectations for how the work will be carried out and quality will be measured. The SMART principles can guide you in the creation of your plan and assist you in determining its viability.

Your plan should include:

  1. The project title
  2. A concise summary
  3. The project manager/managers. You should include relevant information as to the skills, experience and expertise of the project managers
  4. The project team, including their relevant experience and expertise
  5. Summary of work completed
  6. List of activities still to be carried out, with their aims and objectives
  7. Project milestones
  8. Requisite regulatory approvals
  9. Intellectual property details (copyrights, trademarks, patents etc)
  10. Costs and financing
  11. Plan for how the resulting product, service or strategy will be introduced commercially

Identifying and managing project risks

Any R&D project will carry risks, and these should be expected, with contingency plans put in place to ensure the overall safety of the project. Issues could be financial, such as a sudden budget cut or raised costs, or could be to do with miscalculating how and if things will work on a wider scale, requiring a complete overhaul of the project.

As a team, these risks should be brainstormed and then listed in a project log, which can be updated as and when a team member discovers a new issue which may cause problems. The list should include what the risk is, what can be done to prevent it and what you plan do if the worst happens.

The entire project team should be involved in the formulation of this list, and no suggestion should be considered too small or unlikely that it is not included. Once all of the risks are listed, they can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Low impact, low probability. These factors just need to be monitored in case they become more pressing
  • High impact, high probability. It is down to project managers to decide what to do in this situation, but at the very least changes will need to be made to bring down the probability of a problem.
  • Low impact, high probability. Contingency plans need to be put into place to deal with these, but they shouldn’t badly affect the overall success of the project.
  • High impact, low probability. Again, the project manager should make the call, but there should be action taken if the probability is assessed to be more than 1 in 100 of the problem occurring.

Project execution, monitoring and control

There are various factors which contribute to the overall success of any project, things like choosing the right team, having a thorough and in-depth planning process and knowing how to communicate as a team.

Monitoring the project carefully is an extremely important element of project management, helping to understand the progress that has been made and what the likelihood is of reaching the end goal.

In order to monitor the R&D project, the team must decide which elements require monitoring, how to collect this data and what sort of data needs to be collected. There needs to be a mix of:

  • Qualitative data: interviews, focus groups and observations. This provides deeper insights and helps to come up with new ideas.
  • Quantitative data: surveys, polls etc. Generating numerical data which can be turned into statistics, helping to note trends and formulate patterns.

Project managers should also be careful not to get too tied up in gathering data, as too much information can actually confuse the issue and make it hard to get to the bare facts of your research.

Exploiting the results of R&D

New information will become constantly available and the market is bound to continue changing, whatever industry you are in. However, all R&D projects must come to a satisfactory end once you’ve reached your end goals. Closing out a research project effectively is just as important as planning it, as it may offer a platform for future research and development projects.

The team will need to provide a final project report which covers your entire research to date, including:

  • An introduction
  • Work completed. Arrange tasks chronologically and summarise key findings only, so the report isn’t too long and unreadable.
  • Problems encountered. You can list the steps that were taken to remedy problems as well as any follow up that needs to be done.
  • Next steps to be taken. This can include your ideas for any future research that you will find useful.
  • A summary

A well-written and concise final progress report, as well as a spreadsheet which lists final financial statements will help to secure funding and staffing for any future research you might want to do.

Project leadership and teamwork

A successful project will require leadership and teamwork, which is why it is important to choose the right team from the beginning.

Teamwork helps people to feel more invested in the project and their individual roles within it. They can get the help that they need from the rest of the team whilst feeling supported overall.

A project leader is critical, though, to make sure that the project meets its goals. A good leader will be able to:

  • Train staff
  • Create and maintain goals and objectives
  • Delegate responsibility to team members with the right skill set
  • Ensure good communication and resolve conflict
  • Keep the project on-track whilst the team work on their individual areas.

Our intensive, two-day project management course helps to train project managers for success, using tried and tested, as well as some more unorthodox, approaches to project management. To speak to our team about this then please call us on 01582 714 285 or email


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