R&D managers have a wide range of responsibilities. They have to manage people, relationships with other departments – also budgets, equipment, and supplies and suppliers. With this welter of responsibilities, how can managers stay focused and achieve success?
The answer is to have five key goals and concentrate on achieving them.
Goal 1: Finish projects and tasks on time
This begins with determining how long projects and tasks will last. Once you’ve set a schedule, good time management skills are required to achieve it. Another difficulty is that requirements often change in the course of a project. This “project scope creep” can require additional work making projects take longer to complete than originally planned.
Preventing project scope creep can be difficult. If it can’t be prevented, you must get project participants to agree to any project scope changes and the modifications to the schedule that they will require. Keep your project plan and schedule up to date. Also keep all participants informed on team progress and work schedule changes.
Goal 2: Finish on or under budget
Projects tend to go over budget. To prevent this requires initially preparing a realistic project budget while including a cushion to allow for unexpected costs. Develop cost estimates for each task. Include all costs: salaries, laboratory supplies, equipment, travel, etc.
Track spending so you know if your team is going over budget and if so, in which areas. If over-spending on some tasks is inevitable, determine how you can under-spend on other tasks and keep your project or work group on budget.
Goal 3: Achieve the goals
While keeping the work on schedule and on budget, you also have to achieve project goals. Your project solutions should meet the requirements set at the beginning of the project. This means developing a detailed list of requirements at the beginning of the project. All project stakeholders must agree to these requirements.
If changes in the project goals such as product performance or price are necessary, project stakeholders must be informed as soon as possible.
Goal 4: Meet or exceed stakeholder requirements
Stakeholders are anyone affected by or interested in the project. In an R&D project, stakeholders include higher-level R&D managers, plant engineers who will have to manufacture a new product in a plant, salespeople and marketing managers, customers, and suppliers. You have to meet the requirements of all these stakeholders. Specifically:
• Higher-level research managers need your project results to reflect creditably on the laboratory. They will if the requirements of the other stakeholders are met.
• Plant engineers need to be able to reproducibly manufacture the product, ideally with the purchase of minimum process equipment.
• Salespeople and marketing managers need a high-performance product they can sell at a reasonable price to produce a good profit margin.
• Customers need a product that solves an important problem they have and does so at a reasonable price they are willing to pay. The product must meet their performance expectations. Communication throughout the project is important because customer expectations can change. This communication must be open and honest.
• Your suppliers must be able to supply the raw materials or components you need at a reasonable price that your firm is prepared to pay.
Goal 5: Build and maintain a productive work team
Assign staff members work that complements their strengths. To accomplish all of the above you have to assemble a productive work team. Team members must have the skills they need to work on their portion of the project. Team members should be compatible so they can work well together. Often this is the most difficult part of R&D project management.
Happy team members are more productive. Interpersonal issues are fewer on a happy work team. Keeping team members happy can be difficult with reduced laboratory staffing levels and budget constraints. However, there is much that research managers can do on their own despite institutional constraints. In particular, recognize team members for their outstanding contributions. If it is not possible to give them a bonus or raise, recognize them verbally in one-on-one conversations and during team meetings. Taking the team out to lunch, recognizing achievement on a laboratory bulletin board, and bringing snacks to team meetings are all ways to build and maintain team morale.
Accomplish all this and you’ll have a team feeling good about their accomplishments and willing, even eager, work with you again. Senior managers will be more likely to give you challenging assignments. Your colleagues in sales, marketing, production and other functions will be pleased to see you assigned to lead work teams on which they will participate.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.