Project Management

Agile science or why we need a change of mindset about project management for academic research (and how)

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Agile science or why we need a change of mindset about project management for academic research (and how)

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Science advances through projects, and projects are the very basis of scientific research. From master and doctoral thesis involving a handful of people to large international collaborations with hundreds of team members, academia is full of examples of projects. Fieldwork campaign, satellite missions, laboratory analysis, numerical modelling experiments are only a few examples of the type of projects one can find in science. For scientists, project management is a tool that helps us carry out our research in an organised and sensible way to decrease the chances of errors and failure and increase the impact of our research. Scientific projects are most often international, interdisciplinary, intercultural and intersectoral and thus require tailored project management approaches.

Research project management is pervasive and becomes more and more required by funding agencies as an integral part of research project proposals. Together with scientific creativity, good research project management is one of the keys for a successful project. Good management ensures a high impact and helps demonstrate the effective use of tax money within science.

However, research project management is still not implemented as a standard procedure in science and is often also not properly acknowledged as instrumental for the success of a research project. In many contexts within science, in particular when it comes to training at the early stages of a scientific career, project management is often considered a “soft skill”, something that adds value to a curriculum, but not as essential as other more technical aspects of science (e.g., programming, laboratory methodologies, sampling or fieldwork). This needs a shift in the current cultural mindset and this shift is only possible if all science stakeholders, including project scientists, funding agencies representatives, organisation executives and project managers themselves, contribute.

An interesting opportunity to change this mindset presented last February 2020 when I was invited to participate in a 2-days symposium organised by the German Project Management Association specifically aimed at exploring how some modern project management techniques popular in sectors outside academia could be implemented to boost scientific research.

The symposium, first in its kind, was hosted at the German Research Centre for Environmental Health in Munich and opened by its scientific director Prof. Stephan Herzig who stressed the importance to combine world-class science with world-class project management to ensure scientific advancement and how investment in project management is needed to make science more effective.

Modern project management uses appropriate methods depending on the situation. It can include traditional plan-based methods as well as agile management tools. Accordingly, the content of the symposium focused on five methodologies: design thinking (how to create new project ideas), project canvas (how to plan the project), lean start-up (how to start own company from your scientific idea), agile/scrum (how to develop services), and Kanban (how to manage the workflow). The format of the symposium included general introductions of the methodologies and activities in groups to practice how to implement them in scientific activities. The idea was to give the participants an overview of the techniques for us to pick the most appropriate depending on the project or context.

Each of these methodologies has its strengths and can be applied to the many tasks of the researcher/science manager (e.g., write manuscript/prepare conference paper, write progress reports for a funding agency, review manuscripts and conference papers, develop a strategy for the research group, prepare and conduct lab experiment, work on PhD thesis, project team meetings, recruitment, write travel grants/proposals for a new project).

Some project management tasks in science include structure, assign, and schedule tasks, organise meetings, ensure the quality of results, report on performance indicators, manage costs, facilitate creativity. Modern project management methodologies can be applied to each of these tasks and help save time for research.

One major benefit I gained through this symposium is learning how to frame these methodologies in my daily work. I realised that I was already partly applying them to perform my tasks, but understanding the full methods made me appreciate their potential for more applications.  

Design thinking is extremely helpful to boost scientific creativity and guide the brainstorming process to develop new scientific ideas which will be the basis on which to build the research project. Design thinking is a structured process to come up with new ideas for solutions to existing problems so it is ideal to explain the motivation for scientific research.

Project canvas is absolutely valuable when planning your project at a high level but detailed enough to appreciate its value. A canvas can be also used to explain your project in one page and have all the important information clearly visible.

Many research results have the potential for start-ups so why not use lean startup methodologies to transform an idea into innovation and start-up (spin-off)? Personally I haven’t used this so far in my work but I can see that this method will become useful for example when identifying a project’s key exploitable results and their potential applications.

Agile is the next frontier for science. As the academic world and research funding structures are by definition inflexible, there is huge potential to apply agile methodologies and scrum in particular in the smaller bits composing scientific research. For example, we apply agile methodologies for software project management in the context of Earth system modelling but also in the coordination teams of large international projects to coordinate the research in a work package leading to a defined deliverable.

Kanban is a fantastic way to visualise and follow on the work to do and to collect new ideas. In the context of scientific management, we use it to develop the project communication and outreach strategy and to organise events. Not only Kanban is useful to guide brainstorming discussion about new ways to communicate science and our project results, but also to keep track of progress, manage the workflow and implement feedback.

All these project management tools can be adapted to the type of problem we want to address. You might have a favourite methodology to manage your project but generally, and moreover in science research, project management methodologies need to be tailored to the project (e.g., size, budget, context) and the task, and it’s up to a (good) project manager to choose the most appropriate.

Only good project management practices can turn ideas into solutions for scientific challenges. Project management has long been considered opposite to creativity and science, but innovation needs to be managed and supported in order to have an impact, therefore project management is, now more than ever, necessary to make science effective.

Posted by Luisa Cristini on: April 22, 2020 08:48 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Great post and you highlight some very important points. Tailoring methodologies and frameworks, where possible, is the way to go to accommodate your project needs.

Sometimes Hybrid is another way to go which in a way is tailoring as well.


Thanks Rami. Indeed hybrid is a good way too.

Very interesting., thanks for sharing

This was an interesting post. In your list of tasks I might also add activities conducted by dissertation committees. It might depend on the individual professor, but the dissertation could be a pull or push process, depending on whether the student drives their project or requires coaxing.

I hadn't looked for the connection between project management and the publication process, though the connection seems pretty clear. I now have some new ideas for a book I'm working on with my colleague. We can use Scrum to break the book or even individual chapters into increments, and build upon the work with each iteration.

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