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Project management: 10 dos and don’ts

Working at the forefront of medical device development you get to be part of a broad mix of project management programmes. Each project offers its own complexities, from multiple phases taking multiple years, to working with large teams of people from various technical discipline backgrounds, different locations and time zones. All of these things have meant that in order to run a successful project and be an efficient project manager, you need to be organised, be forward thinking and of course, sometimes rely on your gut instinct.

I was not taught project management at university, but through many years of experience, my natural abilities in organisation, listening and communication have helped me to hone my skills. Of course every experienced project manager will have their own rules and rituals to live by, but I thought, 20 years and hundreds of projects later, I would reflect on what I have experienced in medical device projects and share a few of my dos and don’ts in project management:

Dos

1. Do think of a new development programme as a love story

As a young project manager, this was the first thing I learned from my experienced colleagues. After you’ve gone through the sometimes lengthy process of ‘dating’ (agreeing your expectations, your budget and timescales), the parties involved look forward to starting to work together and achieve great things. Both are eager to get to know each other and get stuck into interesting technical challenges. As in dating, this is the honeymoon period – but there will always be a first fall out at some point in the relationship!

2. Do be supportive of your project team

It can be easy for a project manager to forget to praise the individuals in a team who perform well. Project managers have a tendency to look ahead, focus on the next steps, and simply forget about present wins and achievements, but recognising that someone is doing well in a project team boosts morale, commitment and overall long-term project performance.

3. Do protect your project team from unnecessary distractions

It is very important that the project team can focus on coming up with good quality, easy to manufacture and appealing solutions for the end user. Sometimes this means the project manager has to shield the project team from distractions, requests or external feedback. It can be quite disconcerting to be exposed to changing priorities and objectives: it is best to have these discussed and agreed without involving the team, if possible, to keep focus and motivation high.

4. Do stay positive and see the light at the end of the tunnel

I do not think any of us would enjoy the development of new medical products as much if there weren’t any challenges along the way! As a project manager, my philosophy is to remain positive, whichever stage you are at in the development, whichever challenge or set-back you are facing, and keep focused on the end goal: delivering an easy-to-use, safe and effective medical device to improve the lives of patients.

5. Do share project success with your team

No one can claim that project success is down to one discipline. It is by combining expertise from a range of disciplines that you can achieve a successful outcome. As project manager, do not see yourself as a super hero, but ensure recognition is shared with the project team and use it as an excuse for project celebration.

Don’ts

6. Don’t take chances with planning

As project manager, only agree to a plan and a timescale you believe in. Ask colleagues who have done it before to provide input and review your plan; resist the temptation to overlap project phases and take out iterations… if you don’t, you are likely to store difficulties for the future; and you don’t want to lose trust!

7. Don’t ignore bad news

Although a problem shared is a problem (half) solved, to avoid spoiling someone’s weekend (and also yours): don’t wait until 5pm on a Friday or until Monday morning. Instead, gather facts on what happened and why, brainstorm potential solutions (including project team members as appropriate) and make recommendations of what you think is the best way forward.

8. Don’t over-worry about things you can’t control – but be aware of them

There is little point stressing about the areas over which you have little or no control: you will just burn yourself out and this will get you (and the project) nowhere. There are always activities in a programme that are outside your control, such as the delivery date of goods or services from third parties. The only mitigation you can put in place is to regularly monitor progress made by external partners and make sure your project remains their top priority.

9. Don’t share a design prior to initial prototype testing

As you can expect, it is difficult to get complex designs right first time despite all the care and attention shown in the design phase. There is nothing worse than letting a third-party build, test, de-bug and adjust the first prototype of a new design, as this can lead you to be disappointed by the outcome.

As far as possible, I insist that development engineering is part of our work programme and then transfer activities once the project team has had a chance to implement the design they have come up with, tested, and adjusted to meet the critical requirements of the specification. This saves cost and time overall, and contributes to a good relationship with all those involved gaining a sense of achievement.

10. Don’t take delegation for abdication

I always see projects as opportunities to detect new talents in project management and when I spot individuals in a project team who have the potential of becoming a project manager, I consciously increase their level of responsibility and delegate activities that would typically fall within the project manager’s remit.

For example, I carve out a subset of activities for the individual to manage and delegate tasks such as planning for these activities, monitoring the associated budget and spend, resource management, and progress reporting. For the rising star, this is usually less daunting than being given the responsibility of a small to medium size project without any prior coaching, but it still requires close monitoring of performance from the project manager and intervention if necessary.

I could have written many more “dos and don’ts” for project management. It is a constant learning experience with each new project bringing its own challenges, technical, cultural or related to communication.

Being successful in project management results from the combination of experience, level of adaptability, awareness and soft skills. There is no doubt that the discipline has also evolved with the introduction of new technologies, especially in communication and easy access to information. I wonder what we will learn in the next 20 years.

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