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Project Managing in the Innovative Research & Development Field

Written by Damien Quinnell  Project Manager at Quickstep

As all Project Managers would understand, no two projects are alike. They all have differing levels of focus on scope, schedule and cost. For some projects, the scope writes itself, whilst for others, it nearly takes the skills of an investigative journalist to decipher exactly what the business wants the project to achieve. Fundamentally though, all successful projects rely on ensuring that the Project Manager has a tight grip on four key questions;

  • What does the business want to do (and not want to do)? The scope
  • When does the business need it done by? The schedule
  • How much is it going to cost? The budget
  • What is going to kick us off track? The risks

Answering these questions and continually examining them, goes a long way towards a projects success. But when Project Managers delve into a research and development initiative, these questions can become opaque, moving targets.

As a leading innovative composite solutions company, Quickstep dedicates substantial time and effort towards driving technological change in the composites industry via our Research and Development team. A great example of this is our current partnership with Spirit Aerosystems, to develop our Qure rapid composites processing technology for the global aerospace market. The project team has already worked to validate AeroQure as a viable commercial aerospace production solution, capable of meeting aerospace quality and performance requirements, as well as reduced product cost and high production rates. A key objective we accomplished, was achieving positive aerospace results with panels robotically laid-up and cured using AeroQure. The Qure manufacturing process has demonstrated reduced cycle times, substantially increased automation and step-change cost performance in non-aerospace applications.

Despite success, Research and Development projects like AeroQure for commercial aerospace, is never a straight line. It involves diverse levels of concept development, trials and risk. Being a Project Manager tasked with managing a project team of highly skilled R&D engineers, involves using a few tactics, off-the-wall approaches, and a translator. It involves a level of agility that a lot of Project Managers are not comfortable with, and some Executives and Project Review Boards can find to be obfuscating and excuse-laden. There is a level of trust needed in the Project Manager to ensure that what may look like an ill-defined and unmanaged mess, is really a formulation journey; ensuring that progress towards a defined objective is being made, but not locking in an outcome for an outcome’s sake.

Despite the disorderly trajectory that Research and Development projects can bring, Project Managers can assist the team by constantly centring conversations on our key questions. Is what we are proposing to do, in line with the agreed project objectives (which are in line with the business objectives!)? There is no use outlining pioneering composite solutions for which there is no market, or is prohibitively expensive, or just not what the customer ordered. How much are we spending right now and how much are we forecast to spend?  A firm grip on costs at all times is imperative. Creating a detailed, but adaptable project schedule is also key. Project team members need to know what their actions are, with the understanding that tomorrow more actions may be uncovered, or even that the current plan might be rewritten. And that’s ok. Focus on the detail. What actions are you doing this week and are they on time? The constant completion rhythm of project tasks is the wheel which drives the project deliverables train.

Plan, action, do, check. Then replan, action, do, recheck. That’s project management in a Research and Development world. It’s exciting and frustrating at the same time. But if scopes, schedules and budgets didn’t change, it would be called project supervision, rather than project management. We all want to do the interesting stuff and at Quickstep, we get to work on innovative composite solutions that aim to solve real world problems. And what could be better than that!