The Essential Work of Project Managers in Life Sciences
May 6, 2020 by Rose Cook
I feel very fortunate to be working in the life sciences industry. Each day we take steps toward the ultimate goal of developing and delivering treatments so patients can live better lives.
I often remind our project management team that their work is essential. While each team member may be responsible for one component of the project, ultimately everything fits together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Every piece adds value and every member of the team contributes to the goal of successful completion.
Our industry is very complex. Most product development projects take several years, millions of dollars, and involve many people. Vaccines aren’t developed overnight and treatments for new diseases like COVID-19 are long-term endeavors. We need to be both near and far-sighted as we lead our team through a project. And maybe just a little bit psychic!
So how do we pull it all together? As professional project managers, our job is to take the complex and break it down into manageable pieces. I often explain the PM role as similar to a general contractor building a house. There are many talented craftspeople involved as experts in their fields, but the project absolutely needs a general contractor – a project manager – to tie all of those pieces together. Having a dedicated PM allows each functional expert to focus on their own subject matter area, while the PM manages the overall timeline, budget, risks, etc.
We utilize a work breakdown structure (WBS) to carefully divide the project plan into smaller components and display it graphically, like this example. It helps to start with a visualization of all the work.
After drilling down deeper into each deliverable and outlining the corresponding tasks and subtasks, we have the basis for a detailed project schedule. The next step is to capture tasks, including their interdependencies, in an application like Microsoft Project or another similar tool.
I’ve found the best PMs have the ability to go from a broad, big-picture overview of a project down to the details in a single task, then back up again, multiple times a day. They have a unique balance of hard skills and soft skills to effectively lead a team.
When these talents are skillfully applied to a complex product development project in the life sciences, project managers can make the difference between a treatment being available sooner versus later. Whether it’s cancer or heart disease or vaccines, timelines matter because patients are waiting.
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