By William Malsam, Director of Content, ProjectManager
Research and development (R&D) teams understand the constant pressure to develop products that are simultaneously high-quality, innovative and impactful. As a larger volume of R&D teams work from different locations and try to find success regardless of their work style or individual role, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to manage project processes that yield success.
Simply improving the way in which you manage your R&D processes can keep quality and speed top of mind both internally for R&D teams and across the organization as a whole. By consistently implementing the following five project management processes, research and development teams in any vertical can build new products faster while meeting the necessary quality standards.
- Always start with a project plan
Through a detailed and thorough project plan, R&D teams can lay the foundation for a successful and collaborative project. What is the targeted final product and what are the steps necessary to get there? A project plan helps align team members and lay the project infrastructure.
As successful R&D projects always start with an ironed-out plan, the project planning stage is arguably the most important step in the project as a whole. It pinpoints the project’s goals, risks, deadlines and helps the team understand what’s expected of them. As a singular R&D project could take place over a period of years, it’s important to lay the framework that will set your team up for long-term success.
Plans exist on formal documents that outline the who, what, where, why and how of the project. Here are the documents associated with the project planning phase:
- Project charter is a general project overview that outlines the constraints, project stakeholders and reasoning behind why a product is being developed.
- Statement of work defines the scope, schedule, deliverables, milestones and tasks.
- Work breakdown structure divides the project into different phases, subprojects and deliverables that accumulate into the final product.
- Project plan contains four sections including scope management, quality management, risk assessment, stakeholder management and more.
Thankfully, project planning software makes it seamless to produce the above documents and keeps manufacturing teams on track throughout the project. For example, pre-built product development templates make it easy to carry the project through the conception, design, prototyping, pre-production and marketing phases effortlessly. Spend less time building workflows and more time focusing on the overarching product strategy.
Online Gantt charts visualize your project timeline and progress, making it easy to keep track of details such as product and market research, task duration, dependencies and a project baseline with associated costs, to name a few. Regardless of whether your R&D team prefers agile or waterfall to drive the innovation process, they’ll have easy access to the cloud-based tools they need to find success in this hybrid work landscape.
- Ensure your team is on the same page
Aligning with your team on goals, progress and task breakdowns allows you to focus less on the nitty gritty details and more on a clear, overarching roadmap of how to execute the project. Communication plans, clearly defined roles with RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted and informed) charts and kickoff meetings are integral to ensuring individual roles are on the same page.
Not only do individuals within the same R&D team need to be aligned on project objectives, but teams must communicate cross-functionally to marry the product’s design and functionality. Many road bumps encountered by today’s R&D organizations stem from organizational systems that don’t align with the product and minimal transparency between groups.
For example, let’s say you’re responsible for developing a product that helps vehicles check blind spots. To develop further advances to current blind spot monitors, R&D teams require coordination with electrical systems, brake systems and steering systems. With a traditional project management approach, this coordination may not come until the final testing stage when it is too late.
To avoid this problem, R&D teams can continuously refer to project-level reports and dashboards for shareable project data. For example, project management software offers hybrid R&D teams a suite of collaborative tools such as reporting, dashboards and multiple project views to outpace competitors. The more time that R&D organizations have to focus on how they can deliver overarching goals to their customers, the less time they’ll spend tracking down specific metrics or communicating key details with other departments.
- Declutter your virtual workspace
As many projects must toe the line between project management and R&D work, teams can declutter their workspace to drive productivity and maintain quality. The sheer speed associated with producing a new product is becoming faster than ever, making it hard to keep track of one project at a time let alone a slew of incoming product requests.
Moreover, different team members naturally gravitate towards different tools, software, email chains, file sharing methods, etc. Simply tracking down the right information or collaborating with another manufacturing site can be troublesome and time-consuming.
Organization is key in keeping track of details and ensuring nothing slips through the cracks. Centralizing the workspace and using a singular tool to house all files, project plans and varied details yields more productivity with less confusion.
For example, find a tool that offers Gantt charts to create project-level tasks, allocate working hours, set a status and even include task priority levels. If the project manager needs to add a last-minute task for budget approval for the VP of R&D, they can simply locate the project and tag him or her accordingly.
Many software options offer both Gantt charts and Kanban boards in one. For R&D teams that gravitate toward a more visual workflow, they can utilize the Kanban board to see how the product development process is coming along. Kanban boards are particularly helpful to pinpoint project slip, making it easier for project or engineering managers to see when budgets trickle into the red to take immediate action. By streamlining the workflow into predictable and easy-to-navigate formats, the project management process becomes a well-oiled machine.
- Create custom workflows & automation
Without a method of streamlining workflows and processes, R&D teams may struggle to deliver quality, timely products. Sticky notes, one-off emails with task requests or sending a siloed Slack message simply don’t cut it anymore. With such a chaotic way to communicate and track down project details, important work and messaging undoubtedly slips through the cracks.
Enter automation. This doesn’t need to be robots or high-tech solutions. Rather, establish an agreed-upon workflow and take advantage of automated tasks to significantly reduce busywork and prioritize project quality. R&D projects are undoubtedly complex in nature, and it can take the project manager a significant amount of time to set up the project. Multiply this same front-end work across projects and innovation pace screeches to a halt. Even if you don’t have software, you can still create workflows using calendars and task reminders.
Consider the role of VPs, directors, or managers within R&D organizations and how they oversee quality efforts. Streamlined workflows make it easy to determine what tasks need to be approved by which role. Let’s say you need an operations manager to approve the resources within a given project; why not set up a workflow on a Kanban board that guides the task to your manager when the task is completed? Clearly defining responsibilities can help teams maintain both speed and quality.
- Don’t forget to create a roadmap
Long-term roadmaps, whether you’re forecasting budgets or capacity planning, allows R&D leaders to balance workloads and maximize resources. There is huge value in seeing a project through to completion, but it’s always a good idea to be prepared for what’s around the corner.
To balance your team’s workload, you need to know what’s on their plate. Regularly keeping in touch with your team allows you to better understand the types of projects they’re taking on and what their workload is like. This helps avoid the all-too-common issue of some team members sitting idly waiting for more tasks while some are overworked. Balancing workloads gives you the confidence needed to accept or reject incoming project requests and gives you insight into skill gaps that could round out your team.
If you’re a Manager of Engineering working from a different location than your team, you lose the opportunity to chat with them as you pop over to their desk or pass them on their way to lunch. To compensate for this lack of visibility, make sure to check in with your team regularly and create a system that clearly communicates workloads and resource fluctuations.
Better projects are around the corner
Navigating modern R&D projects is significantly easier when you have a project plan, your team is on the same page, and you have access to the right tools to streamline your work. For a higher-tech solution that wraps all these offerings into one, consider project management software to help your team deliver projects on time and under budget.
William leads the content team at ProjectManager, delivering the best project management content in the industry. With more than five years of experience at ProjectManager, William is tuned into the latest trends in project management, and how software can solve critical problems affecting productivity, collaboration and deliverability. William is based in Austin, and is a graduate of Univ. of Texas, Austin. He can be reached at William@projectmanager.com