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Module 2: Commencement and Collaboration – Putting Ideas Into Practice

2.2 Project plan: setting project goals and research targets

Please see Module 1: Research Strategy and Planning for more in-depth review of project planning and management.

“Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”

This quotation, by economist and businessman Sir John Harvey-Jones, illustrates the importance of project planning. This key management competency is central to the successful delivery of your research project. Many projects, even when run by professional project managers, can run over-budget and over-time – often by more than 100%. Research projects introduce an additional set of challenges in four areas:

  • Goals – while the goals of the stakeholders will overlap at times, they will not necessarily be congruent. You will need to be aware that different stakeholders may not equally value all outputs.
  • Uncertainty – research is by definition unpredictable. While you may be able to assess the inputs, you cannot necessarily be confident of the outputs. Major changes in your project goals, scope, timelines, etc. are very likely – even when the resources and interests of the stakeholders do not change over the life of the project. It is essential to plan, but equally necessary to change your plan as the project progresses.
  • Complexity – bringing in additional goals, disciplines, and collaborators often increases complexity exponentially.
  • Management – management of the project is demanding of time and requires competencies in communication, conflict management (conflict resolution), and in relation to the conduct of research.

If you have not already done so, you will need to identify the major tasks that need to be completed, as well as any sub-tasks. As well as estimating how much time you will need to allocate for each task, you will also need to consider the dependencies between tasks/sub-projects. You will need to identify which tasks can be completed concurrently to maximise your use of time and manage your project efficiently. You will be able to identify your research targets from this process.

You may first need to re-visit your proposal and draw up a list of the expected research outcomes, and a list of the personal research goals you aim to achieve by the end of the project. When the award documents arrive, read them carefully to determine the extent to which you will be able to achieve your listed outcomes and goals. The duration and amount of funding may not be what you requested. You may need to carefully and strategically review your project plan.

  • Investigators and Partner Organisations. The time lag between submitting an application and being awarded a grant can be lengthy – probably between 6 and 9 months, and sometimes up to 12 months. One or more of the project’s named investigators may have moved institutions, relocated overseas, or left university employ and may no longer be eligible. Refer to the scheme Guidelines and Funding Agreement to find out what you need to do in such cases and address the issue through your Research Office. Six to nine months is a long time in business or industry and the fortunes of your Partner Organisation (PO) in an ARC Linkage Project venture may have changed. If the PO is no longer in a position to support you, a replacement needs to be found and approved by the ARC. Again, your Research Office will assist you with this process.
  • Intellectual Property (IP) issues. Address IP issues from the start. You probably discussed these with your co-investigators at the time you developed your proposal. Now is the time to re-confirm your discussions and obtain the agreement of all investigators about the ownership of existing and project IP. If necessary, seek advice from your institution’s legal office.
  • Publications. At the same time that you re-confirm IP issues, draw up a publications plan and agree on the basis for determining the order of authors for each intended publication. The agreement you reach about these issues should be included in your management plan.
  • Identify and focus on key issues and results. If you are in the happy (but rare) situation of being fully funded, you will be able to proceed with the research plan as outlined in your proposal. Unfortunately most research grants are not fully funded and you need to identify the key research issue(s) that need to be addressed. In the case of either full or reduced funding, you must focus on outcomes and direct your resources to the research problem that is most likely to result in publication(s).
  • The impact of reduced funding. If your research project has not been fully funded you will need to re-think your approach to the research problem and re-design the project in order to concentrate on what you determine are the key issues. Think about how best to achieve your expected outcomes and your personal research goals, and how to maximise your publication opportunities. Seek advice from your mentor on the best strategy to adopt.
  • Explore other avenues of funding. You may be able to make up any funding shortfall from other sources. Your Faculty and/or School may have discretionary funds that can be used to top-up a successful research grant. If you are engaged in consultancy work, the consultancy fees you earn may, depending on your institution’s policies, be available for you to top-up your grant. Think also about collaborating with others in your field who are funded for similar projects. Alternatively, you can consider applying to another funding agency, but bear in mind that there is always a time lag between application and award. This latter option may be useful if you can separate out a discrete project from the overall research program. Also check the Deed of Agreement to ensure that your primary funding agency will allow you to use funds from other sources.
  • Focus on achieving early results. The average research grant is awarded for 3 years and time goes by very fast. Plan to do everything important in the first year and write up your results by the end of that year. You need to get your papers submitted as soon as possible so that they will be published within 3 years. Remember, you will be relying on results from this project to prepare your next application, and the new application needs to be submitted well before the expiry of your current grant. Experienced researchers warn that where research is concerned, it’s always later than you think!
  • Student projects. If you have sufficient funds and the research program can accommodate it, it is a good idea to build Honours and PhD student projects around the grant. Adopting this strategy will result in more publications and will form the foundation of your next grant. Note: students automatically own their IP unless it is formally assigned to the institution; seek advice from you legal office concerning student IP issues.

The following table outlines some of the objectives of a good project plan at the commencement phase of your project. These objectives apply to research projects of all sizes, and all disciplines. As well as identifying the objectives, the table provides insight into potential challenges and how to manage them.

Objective

Challenge

What happens when it is off-track

How to avoid or manage

Clear and achievable:

  • Research targets
  • Timelines
  • Goals

Understanding and appreciating what motivates stakeholders – i.e. the outcomes they seek.

External: Well into the project it becomes evident that the project is not on track to be a success for all stakeholders – and this may generate a crisis in the project.

Plan rather than hope – have a flexible and responsive project plan.

 

 

Internal: For some team members the research may be a path to a PhD, for others publications in prestigious journals, while for others it may be developing long-term research links.

Understand the drivers for all team members.

 

It is not uncommon for the scope of the research to widen as more issues are identified and are added to the research menu.

‘Scope creep’ leads to a loss of focus and misunderstanding among the project team.

Regularly refocus through progress reviews at milestones.

 

Recognising the implicit goals, e.g. developing people, relationships, building intellectual assets.

Research leaders who focus only on the research results tend to underinvest in the full range of outputs of research.

Recognise the mentoring and capability asset development role of research leaders.

Taking uncertainty into account

Ensuring that all understand that research involves uncertainty and changes (possibly substantial) in timelines, methods, and objectives may be necessary. Partners and collaborators may change their priorities.

When risks are not considered and no resilience is built into the project there is a reluctance to re-orient in response to change.

Anticipate and plan for the uncertainties and risks.

 

Amending plans, milestones, and budgets in response to the evolution of the project.

An aspect of the research project goes 'off-course' and may jeopardise other aspects of the project.

Update the project plan to make it real.

Joint basis for monitoring & evaluation

Ensure that the assessment and indicators of progress are those agreed by all stakeholders.

Some stakeholders may lose confidence in progress and hence in project management.

Fully discuss the most effective approach to assessing progress.

Team-building and team roles

Developing a good appreciation of the intellectual capital of the team members and potential contributors/stakeholders.

Some team members are disgruntled because the capabilities are not used and others do not receive the training they need.

Understand the dynamics of teams and invest in team management training, including in conflict resolution, decision making, and communication.

A strong foundation for collaboration

Collaboration becomes difficult when there are different goals, different values, and particularly when there is a lack of transparency.

Mistrust erodes good will, undermines productivity, and limits creativity.

Develop effective approaches to share information as much as possible.

Good project management

Early identification of problems and continuous evolution of the project plan.

Project management failures distract energy away from the research.

Research and management planning and realistic assessment of the time required for management.

Reflective Activity

Take 10 minutes to use the table above as a diagnostic for the current research project you are working on. See if any of these challenges apply and, if so, consider whether the recommended strategy might be useful action to take.

 

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