Managing a research project takes a lot of work – but there are processes and guidelines that will help you get it done smoothly and effectively.
Research project management differs from standard project management in that research is intrinsically characterised by complexity and the unpredictability of its outcomes, which may in turn impact the project objectives, which are likely to change. Knowing how to manage research projects efficiently and successfully is a skill that strongly contributes to not only project success, but also prepares researchers to better overcome challenges and capitalize on future opportunities in their field.
Below are the key components of how to successfully manage a research project, including the ten principles of research project management and the six steps of the project cycle management.
Managing a research project
Perhaps the best methodology for managing a research project comes from the Ten Principles of Research Project Management by Bryan McKersie. These principles cover all aspects of what is needed to manage a complex, collaborative project with a multitude of moving parts, interconnected tasks, and significant deliverables. The ten principles, in order, are:
1. Stimulate creativity
Research project management requires problem-solving skills and creative thinking.
Utilizing divergent thinking to come up with different ideas and alternative approaches to select the best ideas and options for your project is key. Deductive and abductive logic are essential for proposing hypotheses, and strategic thinking is necessary to envision not only an end goal for your project, but also for going a step further to develop aspects of your project that inspire others to make the most of what you are attempting to create.
2. Satisfy expectations (from grant funders, project investors, or other stakeholders)
Research project management requires a recognition of funders or end-users and their expectations.
Identify which parties (universities, organizations, businesses, or the general public) will benefit most from the knowledge and advancements created by your research project to inform, decide, innovate, and solve problems. Envision opportunities to satisfy stakeholder needs and commit to developing practical solutions that work to the benefit of all.
3. Build a strong research team
Research project management recognizes that the best research teams are highly skilled, interactive, and self-organizing.
Utilize diversity in the form of varying technical skills, experiences, beliefs, and thinking styles to craft a research team that can see the big picture and deliver on the necessary details. Look to provide a sense of purpose for each individual and empower them to make tactical decisions. Share authority and responsibilities appropriately; try to avoid micromanaging and instead support team members by trusting them to do their job. Embracing a creative conflict of ideas, philosophies, experiences, and beliefs goes a long way in realizing project success.
4. Communicate effectively
Research project management requires clear communication within the team and with all of the project’s stakeholders.
Ensure you identify relevant stakeholders, define their expectations, and plan WHO communicates WHAT to WHOM – this is absolutely critical for project success and for making sure your project is understood, reviewed, accepted, and used.
5. Be Explicit
Research project management requires explicit statements that can be easily communicated and understood by all stakeholders.
Explicitly state the following:
Your research project’s objectives
Criteria for success
Your scientific model (including its assumptions, unknowns, and predictions)
Clarity for your plans
Your progress and accomplishments.
6. Keep it simple
Research project management requires scientific models with the fewest assumptions and management processes with the fewest policies, fewest standard operating procedures, least bureaucracy and greatest flexibility.
Make your research project management processes as simple as possible. Keep each research project relatively small, with specific tactical objectives. Break down your large project into modular components (e.g. work packages) to achieve your strategic objectives.
7. Plan carefully
Research project management requires both strategic and tactical planning.
Focus on producing rigorous knowledge, not rigid plans. Schedule, monitor and control each modular component of your project with proven project management practices for tasks and utilize work packages (WPs) to ensure efficiency and success.
8. Make good decisions
Research project management requires a prescribed series of decisions.
The success of the research project and the utility of the knowledge it creates depends upon making quality decisions. For this to occur, it is essential to establish the responsibility and authority of each individual on your team to make specific types of decisions and to include key stakeholders in strategy decisions to facilitate acceptance and implementation. Make decisions transparently and be aware of the effort and time required to make consensus decisions.
9. Embrace change and uncertainty
Research project management requires a positive response to changes in assumptions, scientific models, hypotheses, and external events.
Expect the unexpected: manage uncertainty through iterations, anticipation, and adaptation. Recognize risks early to mitigate them and continuously monitor any particularly risky components of your project to quickly implement contingency plans – and recognize that some stakeholders have a low tolerance to risk and to change.
10. Continuously improve
Research project management requires that your research team learns from experience and improves both its scientific and management skills, continuously.
Review your accomplishments and failures and learn from them. Capture, communicate, and implement improvements at the end of your research project to the extent you are able to do so.
EU project cycle management guidelines
The EU project management cycle, more commonly known as Project Cycle Management (PCM), defines the management of the activities of the decision-making processes that underlie the submission of a project proposal to an Evaluating Commission, which in this case would be Horizon Europe via the European Commission. PCM is a unique and standardized approach and represents the whole of management activities and decision-making procedures used during the life cycle of a project.
PCM helps to ensure that projects are relevant to an agreed strategy and to the problems of target groups. Projects should also be feasible, meaning that objectives can be achieved within the constraints of the operating environment and within the competencies of the implementing organisation.
Within PCM, the Logical Framework Approach (LFA) is an analytical and management tool used by many aid agencies, international NGOs, and partner governments. The LFA helps to analyse and organise information a structured way during each stage of the project cycle, such as by helping to formulate project objectives, supporting work planning, and providing a basis for performance and impact assessment. The Logical Framework Matrix (the logframe) consists of a matrix summarising the key elements of a project plan, as shown in the table below.
Filling in the LFA matrix is best completed in a structured manner, which is described in detail in the official Project Cycle Management Guidelines. The steps and tips given in the guidelines ensure that the LFA matrix is completed in a way that supports the rest of steps within PCM, as described below.
Six main steps for PCM
There are six steps to creating a working PCM within the Horizon Europe framework, shown in the figure below, all of which require different areas of focus and tasks to complete successfully.
The first step in PCM involves carefully reviewing the call text for the proposal and examining the program guidelines and manuals. It is also the time to identify any ideas to propose and check on the program website which other projects have been previously funded to get a better idea of what to focus on. It is also crucial to clearly define problems that need to be addressed at this stage.
Here it is useful to draft a descriptive summary of the project or develop the project draft. It is also the point at which potential partners should be included and a matrix of objectives, purpose, results, activities, costs, and tools should be developed (also known as logframe analysis – see above). At this point, the project file should also be sent to the partners, complete with deadlines and precise indications about expected responses.
This is where the project shape really takes form. Always refer to the call text or project guidelines and any FAQs while formulating the project concept, and be sure to make a table with the entire project schedule: set dates and times for meetings, deliverables, and tasks that each partner must perform.
Always perform a final review, ideally by having the project read by an external participant – and always use the call checklists before final submission.
When a proposal is approved by the examining commission, the time that passes between submission and commencement of the project can vary. This usually takes at least three months, and often longer. Before the actual funding is released, it is possible that the examining commission starts an interlocutory process with the potential recipients to deepen some aspects that may not be completely clear or expressed in detail in the initial application. Afterwards, financing will commence for winners of grant funds. More information on how this works in Horizon Europe can be found in one of our recent posts here.
During the implementation phase, all project activities should be planned in a detailed manner, including timing and specific objectives. Ensuring the appropriate team members take care of specific project activities is necessary in this stage, as well as continued management of the important relationships with project partners. It is also crucial to procure any necessary resources useful for carrying out project activities that have not yet been finalized yet, and to ensure monitoring and constant verification of the project actions is underway by this time.
The final step of the project cycle is evaluation, after all processes have been approved and outcomes become clear. This can also involve an external evaluation, such as an audit by an independent expert with the ability to analyze project results and make comparisons between contents and results. Furthermore, the evaluation stage can include a follow-up as well, after sufficient time has passed since the initial evaluation period.
How to get help with research project management
Even with implementing all the necessary steps, there is no getting around the fact that the role of Scientific Coordinator is very different from the role of Project Manager.
Scientists want to see inventions and technological advancements taken to the next level – project managers want to see results delivered on time and within budget with all stakeholders satisfied.
The Project Management team at Linq Consulting comes from scientific backgrounds and are able to understand both sides. Our team members enable effective projects by letting you focus on your research while we take care of the administration.
We manage and administer projects of all sizes, both as a subcontractor and as a full project beneficiary. If you or your organisation would like support with project activities and help in achieving long-term project success, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further reading on research project management: