Finishing experiments, preparing a presentation, submitting a grant proposal…. How often have you felt overwhelmed by your to do lists while facing a multitude of deadlines? If only there was a way to stay organized and focused. Indeed, efficient project management is one of the most important skills to master as an early-stage researcher, and it all starts with a basic understanding of the underlying principles. With this week’s Skills Weaving Blog, we will take a closer look at the four stages of project life cycle.
The four stages of a project
Any project can be divided into four consecutive stages, each characterized by specific actions and requirements that have to be fulfilled.
Initiation: The project initiation stage represents the transition from an initial idea to the decision to actually make it happen. It involves developing a vision and mission statement (i.e. why and how should this project be implemented). Most importantly, during initiation you will define the goal, objectives, and scope of the project in line with ambitions and expectations. You will also make a rough allocation of resources and assign roles to core team members and stakeholders. The initiation stage is concluded when there is agreement on the project outline and a clear decision has been made to go ahead (or not) with the project.
Planning: Upon deciding to go ahead, the planning stage commences. During this stage, the project is planned in sufficient detail to ensure a smooth implementation during the execution stage. Specifically, the project is broken down into manageable tasks, each associated with clearly-defined deliverables and milestones. All the work is then scheduled into a realistic timeline (usually represented as a Gantt chart), after which resources can be allocated. Another key aspect of the planning stage is performing a risk assessment and designing appropriate mitigation strategies. For larger projects, there may be the need of a more elaborate management concept and organisational structure. The planning stage is concluded once all aspects of the project have been compiled into a project plan.
Execution: The execution stage is where the actual work gets done. From a management perspective, this is where your prioritization and time management skills will be put to the test. Another important aspect involves progress monitoring to ensure that the projects goals are met according to the schedule, budget, and other pre-defined requirements. Such monitoring also concerns active quality management so that the outcomes align with the expectations outlined during the initiation and planning stages. Finally, the execution stage requires effective people management: keeping the team motivated and key stakeholders involved or informed.
Closure: Each project ends with a formal conclusion during the closure stage. This is when the final reporting an evaluation takes place. For larger projects and research consortia, there can be closure meetings where the successes are celebrated (of course, smaller teams can go out for a dinner or drink too). It is a good practice to summarize each project with an overview of the lessons learned and a clear description of the next steps (if any).
Putting it in practice
There is much more to learn about project management, from essentials to advanced situational approaches. The four stages outlined above provide a good framework to get started, as they involve basic concepts like scope, stakeholders, deliverables, milestones, schedules, risk assessment, progress monitoring, and quality management. It is worth to get familiar with these terms and the associated techniques, so you can start to apply them from an early stage to your research projects. You will notice that a structured approach will reduce the stress and increase effectiveness.
Still, even the most experienced project managers will be put to the test when faced with the constantly changing realities of daily life. This requires a constant balance between structure and flexibility, and the experience to know when to prioritise one over the other. A good practice is to end your working day with a short planning session for the next day. This forces you to make a plan and enables a good start of the next day. By doing it a day in advance, you avoid that your plans get influenced by last-minute distractions.
Keep improving your management skills
Getting better at project management is a constant process that requires dedication and persistence. Even with that, you may realize that the increasing complexity of new projects keeps you at the limit of your skills. It is therefore important to develop a solid approach towards prioritization and time management, topics that are covered in more detail other Blogs. With Skills Weaving, we offer tools and resources that allow you to enhance your project management skills.