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R&D Project Management: key elements and best practices

R&D project management is one of the most complex tasks you may encounter as a Project Manager. While in more ‘traditional’ projects, so to say, the objectives to be achieved and well-defined schedules, budgets and resources are clear from the initial stages of the project, this rarely happens with this type of project.

R&D projects rarely have such a rigid structure, but rather live in uncertainty throughout the project life cycle. Changing market needs, new opportunities to be exploited, constant adjustments in product development and resource allocation. There are so many changing circumstances in this type of projects and so many interests involved that in the end many of them fail because they end up losing focus on what is most important in this type of initiatives:

  • Alignment with the organization’s strategic objectives.
  • To meet users’ and customers’ needs.

Do you currently manage R&D projects? Would you like to know what are the key elements and best practices to take the management of this type of projects to the highest level? If so, read on.

What is R&D project management?

Project management consists of a set of frameworks and processes for planning and managing the different phases of a project. This is, broadly speaking, a classic definition of what is nowadays understood as Project Management in which you, as Project Manager, plan, prioritize and supervise the different operations and tasks to be carried out to complete the project within the agreed deadlines and budgets, optimizing to the maximum issues such as resource management or project costs.

However, can this traditional view of project management be applied, for example, to the research and development of new products or services? Is it possible in this type of projects to work with well-defined objectives, requirements, deadlines and budgets from the beginning, as it is the case with the projects you normally manage in your organization?

The answer is NO. If there is one thing that defines R&D projects, it is their high degree of uncertainty. Think about it for a moment. Most of these projects consist of researching and developing entirely new products that address a specific user need for which there is nothing available on the market.

These are projects that, if well-executed, can give companies a great competitive advantage. But its management is complex, as the definition of the following aspects may change throughout the project life cycle:

  • Needs: in R&D projects, the research phase plays a fundamental role in identifying possible market opportunities and unmet customer needs. However, what happens if these needs change during the course of the project? How can you effectively manage new product development projects in an environment where customer demands change with such volatility?
  • Requirements: while in more traditional projects the requirements are already fully defined in the planning phase, this is rarely the case with R&D projects. There are many factors, both internal and external, that can force these requirements to be reviewed and modified: changing customer needs, lack of resources or funds, lack of knowledge of certain technologies, etc.
  • Objectives: R&D projects have the greatest importance for the companies, hence their prioritization is the highest possible. However, what happens if the strategic objectives change? What if the market opportunity disappears and the company focuses on new goals? This aspect plays a fundamental role in R&D project management.
  • Delivery dates: giving realistic dates for completing a new product development project is practically a pipe dream. The outcomes of an R&D project are usually uncertain, hence the difficulty of establishing delivery dates for this type of initiative. On the other hand, the evolution of needs and requirements throughout the project life cycle may also cause changes in the agreed end-of-project dates.

Key elements of R&D project portfolio management

Due to all these constraints, the research and development of a new product brings with it governance and management challenges that, although they may have similarities to those you have to deal with in your day-to-day project management, have their own peculiarities.

For efficient R&D project management, it is necessary to know which are its key elements. Understanding these differentiating elements will enable you to better manage all the issues you will encounter throughout the project life cycle, and will increase the success rate of the research and development projects you manage. These key aspects are as follows:

    1. Understanding the R&D project environment.
    2. Customer involvement.
    3. Requirements Management.
    4. Resource Management across multiple projects.
    5. Communications Management.

We will now analyze each of them.

1. Understanding the R&D project environment

It is important to know in detail the environment in which R&D projects are planned and developed, as it is one of the most turbulent and volatile environments that you will encounter as a project manager. You will face governance and management challenges that will be difficult to respond to immediately due to the complexity and uncertainty surrounding these new product development projects. Some outstanding examples:

  • Set targets in new product development initiatives that require technology that, in most cases, has not yet been discovered.
  • Develop a detailed project timeline, with milestones and key dates, when many of the R&D project requirements are yet to be verified once product development begins.
  • Not having certain skills or roles in the organization to carry out the project while the organization’s executives require you to complete the project within certain deadlines.
  • Coordinate with the Marketing department to introduce the product to the market at the right time before it ceases to be an opportunity for the business.

Knowing how to manage an environment in which executives, teams and external partners can influence the development of the project will be the biggest challenge you will face as an R&D project manager.

2. Customer involvement

Customer involvement in the development of new products is key. Their feedback will not only allow you to develop products that are easy to use and maintain, but also to identify improvements in aspects such as usability, product performance and satisfaction of consumer needs. Feedback that, if used wisely, will help to achieve greater market penetration of the products and, therefore, more profits for the company.

It is recommended to involve the customer in several of the phases of the R&D project life cycle, such as:

  • List of project requirements. A feedback with the client at this point will help to identify the pain points and problems that the client wants to solve, and from there do the relevant market research before project initiation.
  • Testing and validation of the product prototype, in order to identify possible improvements and errors to be corrected for the final version of the product.
  • Evaluations of the final product to establish whether the product has met the customer’s needs and possible improvements for future versions of the product.

3. Requirements Management

The active involvement of the client in the development of R&D projects means that the management of the requirements of this type of initiative has some peculiarities compared to other types of projects. While it is normal to have clear project requirements in the early stages of a project, this is not the case when it comes to new product development.

The requirements for this type of project tend to evolve over time. And the lack of agility and flexibility of organizations to adapt to this type of circumstances, very common in R&D projects, causes many of them to fail. An efficient management of these requirements and a clear communication of any changes in them will be critical to manage key aspects of these projects such as resource management, capacity planning or project budgets.

Therefore, when managing project requirements, it is essential that all project stakeholders (project managers, development teams, external partners, executives, etc.) never lose focus on the strategic objectives and overall purpose of the R&D project.

4. Resource Management across multiple projects

Most R&D projects are large-scale, involving the allocation of multiple organizational resources to perform the various tasks of the project throughout its life cycle.

If we add to this what we have already mentioned in the previous point regarding the complexity of managing the requirements of an R&D project, you will now understand the importance of resource management and capacity planning for this type of initiatives.

  • Capacity planning will help you estimate the resources you will need to allocate to each of the project areas and tasks throughout the project life cycle, taking into account the evolution of the project requirements and the priority of the project for the organization.
  • On the other hand, with efficient resource management, you will know at any time how many resources need to be allocated to the project and the efforts that need to be dedicated to it. Here it will be important to list the skills and competencies of each of the members of the company in order to detect strengths and weaknesses and, depending on the project requirements, to seek or not those resources outside the organization.

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5. Communications Management

When managing R&D projects, it is essential to have a communications plan in place that establishes the following:

  • The periodicity with which we will inform the different project stakeholders about the evolution of the project.
  • Main communication channels (reports, alerts, email, discussion forums, etc.).
  • How and where will be documented all information relating to all such communications.

Considering how quickly requirements can change and, above all, the uncertainty that always surrounds R&D projects, having a clear understanding of how all project changes will be communicated is essential for efficient project management.

Best Practices for R&D project portfolio management

Now that you know the key elements that differentiate R&D project management, it is important that you implement a series of best practices to increase the probability of success in the development of new products. Some of them will be familiar to you because you are probably already putting them into practice in other types of projects, but in R&D and new product development are especially relevant. They are the following:

  1. Work with business objectives always in mind.
  2. Manage your resources wisely.
  3. Use Phase Gates Process across the entire portfolio.
  4. Documentation of all the knowledge bases of the project.
  5. Keep stakeholders informed.
  6. Use a SaaS PPM software.

1. Work with business objectives always in mind.

When managing R&D projects, it is essential that all parties involved never lose focus on the strategic objectives of the organization. Hence, if there are changes in factors such as priority, requirements, budget or project deadlines, you can make decisions aligned with the vision and mission of the organization.

Having processes and tools in place that allow you to plan What-if scenario simulations will be critical to managing budgets, costs and other factors will be key to the efficient management of your new product development projects.

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2. Manage your resources wisely

Dealing with all the workload involved in new product development is one of the biggest challenges any project manager has to face, especially when it comes to resource management. If it is already complex to plan the allocation and management of resources in any type of project, program or portfolio, this becomes even more complicated when you enter the R&D field.

Again, the uncertainty surrounding these initiatives is the cause of this. Depending on the type of R&D project you may have tighter schedules, while in others you may not have any deadlines for each of the project milestones.

What-if scenario simulations are essential to keep project objectives and requirements aligned at any time. But also, with the strategic vision of the organization, they become even more relevant for resource management. It is key to the process to be able to plan in advance the resources you will need for the project based on how the priority, requirements and deadlines of the project evolve.

3. Use Phase Gate Process across the entire portfolio

R&D project management requires the implementation of rigorous control processes to review the progress of the project and make the corresponding adjustments when necessary. There is no point in devoting resources, money and time to a new product that, once finished, does not meet the needs of customers and markets because we have not been exhaustive when it comes to periodically reviewing what has been done.

Therefore, the Phase-Gate methodology is best suited to the R&D project environment. This methodology mainly consists of implementing a review process for each of the phases of the project (ideation, scope, business case, development, testing and launch), in which, after having analyzed the progress made and identifying possible improvements to be implemented, one of the following decisions is taken:

  • Move the project to the next phase.
  • Stop it to carry out the pertinent improvements.
  • Cancel it because it is no longer profitable for the organization.

You can learn more about the Phase-Gate Process in the following post.

4. Documentation of all the knowledge bases of the project

In an R&D project, the documentation process takes on special relevance, more than in any other type of project. Not only the progress made should be documented, but also any changes that may have occurred in the project (new requirements, budget and resources adjustments, updated deadlines, etc.) and the reasons why these changes have been made.

All communications with project stakeholders (minutes, e-mails, reports, presentations, etc.) shall also be recorded.

All this documentation will serve as a knowledge base not only for the current project, but will also serve as a repository for future R&D projects to be managed and as a source of learning from past successes and mistakes.

5. Keep stakeholders informed

Due to the importance of R&D projects and new product development for organizations, communication with stakeholders must be regular and smooth.

From the initial stages of the project, you should establish a frequency with which to communicate with them. These are communications that will go beyond reporting on the progress of the project, since you must agree with them on aspects such as:

  • Project requirements.
  • Project objectives.
  • Budgets and costs.
  • Resource allocation and recruitment.
  • Collaborations with external partners.
  • Testing and validation of the prototype.
  • Project cancellation.
  • Changes in requirements or project delivery dates.

As indicated in the previous point, all communications with stakeholders must be documented for proper monitoring of the project’s progress.

6. Use a SaaS PPM software

If you think that by filling in spreadsheets you will be able to manage your R&D projects, get that idea out of your head because this type of project is much more complex than any other you manage in your organization. A traditional project management tool is also not enough to cover many of the governance and management challenges involved in new product development, as these tools do not efficiently cover issues such as planning and strategic alignment.

A PPM software is the best option to take R&D project management to the next level. With a PPM tool you will be able to:

  • Prioritize your projects by aligning them with the organization’s strategic objectives.
  • Plan capacity and resource management based on these strategic objectives.
  • Perform What-if scenario analysis in advance.
  • Keep all stakeholders informed with fully customizable alerts and notification systems.
  • Create reports and dashboards to monitor the progress of the project and inform the organization’s executives about its status in real-time.

Managing your R&D project portfolio with Triskell Software

The Triskell platform is the PPM software with strategy execution management functionalities that will allow you to successfully address all the challenges and difficulties you will encounter when managing your R&D projects. Thanks to its flexibility and ability to integrate with different tools (e.g. ERP software, Jira or Microsoft Project) you will be able to plan, monitor and manage all aspects of your R&D projects.

Here are some of Triskell’s features that will help you to achieve excellence in R&D project management:

  1. Roadmaps with which to plan the project and to visualize the different tasks to be completed throughout its life cycle.
  2. Workflows to organize project activities.
  3. Stage reviews to decide whether to go ahead with the project or to make the appropriate modifications.
  4. Stage reviews to decide whether to go ahead with the project or to make the appropriate modifications.
  5. Cost control to monitor all expenses derived from your R&D projects.
  6. Budget management to keep under control the budget allocated to your projects.
  7. Resource management to allocate resources and monitor their use in your organization for the R&D projects you manage.
  8. Ideas management to undertake on new R&D projects or improve the requirements of existing ones.
  9. What-if Scenario analysis to plan in advance the organization’s capacity for possible changes of course.
  10. Integration with ERP software and other project management and execution tools such as Microsoft Project or Jira.

Request a demo of Triskell Software

If you would like to learn more about how Triskell can help you manage your organization’s R&D projects, request a demo below.