Project management tools for researchers
The project management tools you use need to be fit for the job - you don't want to spend more time managing the project than you spend actually working on it. In all probability simple IT tools will be all you need to:
- persuade potential funders that you will be able to manage the project
- keep on top of everything once you are actually managing the project.
The step-by-step instructions in this section should start you on your way to a successful project.
Generally, simplicity is best. So a straightforward table that lays out what is to be done, by whom and by when, is enormously valuable - if it is shared across the members of the team. Important milestones should be highlighted. The addition of a column that indicates the status of the task adds more power to this simple tool. Some teams like to use a traffic lights approach. Green for on schedule, amber for concerns and red for behind schedule. This allows you (or anybody else) to tell at a glance how things are going.
Don't ever underestimate the power of visual information in explaining to people your project plan and project management structure.
When running multiple projects, listing tasks against time can help you to identify peak load problems. If your ‘to-do' list of tasks becomes too long you may find it more efficient to use a specific organisational tool such as Microsoft OneNote. This is an extremely useful tool that integrates well with the rest of the Microsoft Office suite. There are of course other products available but if you have Microsoft Office then you probably already have OneNote on your computer.
Something that all project managers should do is a risk analysis. It is helpful to split risk into two aspects: probability and consequence. Probability is the likelihood of something happening, consequence is how serious things are if it does happen. An important reason for separating them is that you manage them in different ways. If the risk is the loss of a key member of staff then you manage the probability by trying to make their job secure and make them feel valued. You manage the consequence by ensuring that their work is properly documented and that other people are trained up in the key areas of their work. There is a good introduction to risk analysis in the JISK infokit.
A common and useful project management tool is the Gantt chart (named after Henry L Gantt who introduced the technique in 1903). This has 'tasks' down the vertical axis and 'time' across the horizontal. The duration of a task is shown by the length of a horizontal bar, and the timing of the task by its position on the chart.
Gantt charts can be easily produced in a Word table or an Excel spreadsheet but they are more powerful if they are generated with tailored software such as Microsoft Project. Many higher education institutions have a licence for Project or other similar software. The advantage of something like Microsoft Project is that is enables you to link tasks, for example task ‘y' cannot start until task ‘x' is complete. This process of listing all the tasks and defining the links between them is a really useful discipline. Chaining your tasks together like this usually tells you, on your first attempt, by how much your project will overrun but Project also allows you to play with different possibilities and, during the planning stage in particular, this can be very useful. It also generates a visual presentation of the project that helps at the bidding stage.
Another thing that a software-generated Gantt chart can identify for you is your time-critical tasks. These are the tasks on the ‘critical path' whose late completion will mean that the whole project will finish late. It is helpful to identify these at the outset because these are the tasks that you will need to manage especially carefully.
In general people view this tool as most useful at the planning and bidding stages, and for periodic major updates. It can take a lot of effort to update Project on a day-to-day basis and most people don't find this worthwhile.
There are other techniques such as PERT (Programme Evaluation and Review Technique), which is also available within Microsoft Project, but these are more laborious and so are not recommended for small projects.
For large complex projects the use of a formal project management methodology such as PRINCE2 may be appropriate. You may require initial training and support to become familiar and confident with this methodology and it is a good idea to ensure at least one other person in your team is also able to use it. There are, though, more and more PRINCE2-qualified people around and it can be useful to get one of them to look over your project plan to identify any major concerns.
For a more detailed introduction to these and other project management tools and techniques see the links in the right-hand column.