By Gina Sanchez
On October 14th, iJOBS hosted a workshop inviting participants to learn about the elusive field of project management from the viewpoint of Agile Project Managers. Representatives from Agile provided insight into the approach to project management that they use when helping secondary companies. Project management is a field that is constantly evolving as our understanding of workplace psychology and common motivators changes. Here, we’ll walk through what the traditional methodology is for project management, and how Agile’s system revolutionizes the field!
There are many approaches to effective project management that can make learning about this field a bit confusing, so some Agile coaches guided participants through the options. First, let’s take a look at the traditional methodology. John Tse described the traditional approach to project management as following a “waterfall effect”, assuming a series of related yet distinct events or phases. The plan for the team is made up-front and is completed in individual, distinct phases until the project is finished. For each project, the requirements are meticulously stated and documented at the onset, which is good for keeping everyone on the same page. The project manager fits into this schematic by leading the group and ensuring that any deviations in the plan are promptly and appropriately brought back to baseline. The project manager also is responsible for realizing each person’s strengths and weakness and subsequently assigning them to specialized roles to maximize everyone’s potential. With a structured framework, waterfall methodology is helpful to keep the team engaged and synchronized, but it is a rigid and unforgiving plan that does not allow adapting to deviations.
What you miss with the traditional project management approach is the ability to change. John Tse emphasized that “we are in a VUCA world,” which is not meant for rigidity. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Things are consistently changing in today’s world, ironically making change a major consistent phenomenon. This holds true in the workplace as well, which is why Agile’s project management system is based on a set of values, explained by an Agile practitioner, Bob Phillips, during the workshop. This is the Agile approach that is more and more widely used.
The first major value is “individuals & interactions over processes & tools.” Some companies try to prioritize the generation and maintenance of a tool or technology as opposed to the people who are working together to keep it moving forward. A 40-hour work week is the standard and while you occasionally work overtime, this should not be the norm. When you have a motivated task force, they tend to self-organize and volunteer to do certain roles when given a list of tasks that must be completed. This might sound familiar if you have ever worked on a “to-do list” style group project in class before. You also must build projects around motivated individuals as this makes them eager to learn and experiment. However, this also requires the business to trust the team. The bottom line of this value: while you must ultimately complete the goals set forth, you must keep your employees happy in order to get the best outcome.
The next Agile value is “working software over comprehensive documentation.” There is great value in taking notes and maintaining up-to-date documentation as it is very helpful for troubleshooting down the line. However, it is more important that you do not spend so much time on documentation that the product never actually comes to fruition. Ultimately, the measure of success of the team is whether a working product is delivered. Simplicity is essential. A helpful comparison is your lab notebook. You should absolutely take notes about the details of your experiment, but you also must make sure you have time left for your experiment. Documentation is important, but it must not come at the expensive of the product’s functionality.
Agile’s third value is “customer collaboration over contract negotiation.” As a project manager, you need routine feedback and communication to allow for optimal adaptability. It is easier to fix something at step 3 than to circle back upon completion of a 10-step project. The Agile approach believes there is no need to wait for the deadline to ask for feedback. Mr. Phillips emphasized that “it is more work to work with an Agile team because you must provide daily feedback.” By maintaining an open line of communication between all collaborators, the goal will more likely be attained.
The fourth Agile value is “responding to change over following a plan.” It is important that a plan is set in place upon forming a collaboration so that each member remains on the same page. On the other hand, it is essential that everyone can accept change. As each team makes strides on their respective tasks within a project, the client’s wishes may change. People’s perspectives adjust, and that is to be expected. We can find an example to relate to this in our academic research. Let’s say the data that you see in your RNA sequencing studies do not hold true at the protein level. This does not mean the project is dead, but it does mean that you must shift your attention back to the RNA. Therefore, it is essential that you and the project management team welcome changing requirements.
From these Agile values, Jesse Fewell explained the 4 major Agile skills that define an Agile project manager:
- Think small. We need to think in small steps, one step at a time. An Agile project manager must be realistic and set attainable goals within this scope.
- Think vertical. In collaborations, everyone has their own tasks that must be stitched together into the final product by the project manager. They need remain customer-orientated, so the team must be organized around the client instead of being organized within their departments.
- Know others. This seems straightforward but is often lost when forming teams. As a project manager, you must know people’s strengths and what conditions they thrive under in order to maintain a happy and healthy work environment.
- Know yourself. As Mr. Fewell stated, “you must know your career goals and next steps”. This can include work flexibility, compensation, autonomy, etc.
From this workshop, students learned from industry professionals about one of the industry standards for effectively managing a team. The traditional methods for project management are effective but are also innately flawed in that they do not allow for the VUCA world we are in today. All of the skills described here can easily be translated into the lab. We must “think small” when planning our project. We should write grants with a plan of experiments, but with realistic expectations and backup plans with each step. We also must “think vertical” when we take charge on collaborations. The ultimate goal of a collaboration is to progress science. To maximize progress, we must stitch together how each individual can contribute, which brings us to the third skill, “know others.” Every lab has people who are the best at a certain skill, so you must assign people tasks that just make sense for them. And finally, you must “know yourself” in that you have to do your best and choose your lab based on what environment is best for you (hands-on PI vs hands-off PI, business hours vs. flexible schedule). With Agile’s tools for project management, you are more likely to have an outcome that everyone is happy with because of its allowance for adaptability and room for reflection.
This article was edited by Junior Editor Juliana Corrêa-Velloso and Senior Editor Natalie Losada.
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