Okay, thank you to everyone for that first part. Now we’re going to move into the meaty part of the workshop and look at some comparisons between research and project management across some key parameters, including the ones that were included within the pre-work. What I’m going to do here is I’m going to stop presenting because I’m going to adjust this PowerPoint live as we’re discussing. Basically, the first thing that I thought is really useful, or we all thought is really useful to look at, is looking at risk tolerance and the levels of uncertainty in research and in project management. I’ve just shared with you here some of the comments that we had from the pre-work just to give you an impression of the real variety of perceptions around this, all of which are valid actually. One participant has shared that project management is high risk of financial loss and research is high risk in terms of promotion prospects and the reception of further funding. That’s interesting, so we’re looking at – yes, the context within research and project management happens and I guess comparing the organisational risk with the personal risk or the risk to one’s career. Another comment that we’ve had is, ‘When thinking about risk, it depends on the type of research and project management you are undertaking. This is not an easy one to answer.’ That’s absolutely fair enough, I think. We’re talking in really broad strokes, general terms here, and of course, there’s a lot of variety in reality. Then a final comment: ‘Project management has a lower risk since preliminary work is done and requires to deliver something valuable. However, research does not always deliver the desired results that were first established.’ I think that’s a really good point as well because that highlights how the active management of risk is often a very important part of project management whereas it isn’t necessarily historically, in research. Although I would argue that that is probably happening more and more within research. Okay, so just to do something a little bit practical then, I thought we could just… Yes, some of the parameters around this discussion, and ask the panel to place where they would put research and project management on each of these continuums. Then we can compare it with what came through from the pre-work. Maybe I’ll put all of it together and share with you at the end of this workshop, but I thought we could start from scratch for the panel and get everybody’s take on this. I’ve grouped these three ones together because they’re quite related, I think. ‘Detailed plan’ versus ‘Seeing how things go’. ‘Well-defined goals’ versus ‘Exploring the unknown’, and ‘Low risk’ or ‘High risk’, but what I should actually have put there is ‘Low-risk tolerance’ and ‘High-risk tolerance’, how actively risk is managed, I suppose, as opposed to how risky the activity is. Rebecca, would you like to comment on that first? Just because I’m conscious you’ve always been last but not least. First but not least now.
Wasn’t ready to unmute then – I was expecting to be last!
Yes, so I would put much more towards the detailed plan side of things.
For project management?
Yes, about here?
Well-defined goals I would put in a very similar place, actually!
I don’t think anything is risk-free. I don’t think anything is low risk, even when you’ve got the best project plan in the world, so I would probably put the next one just a little bit further to the right.
Yes, brilliant, and would you like to compare that with research or are you happy just sticking with project management?
Going back to scientific research, which was many years ago for me, I would probably put it in the middle for the top one.
I would put it to the left for the next one down.
So more to the left than project management or less, about the same…?
No, less, I would say.
Yes, somewhere there, I would say.
Then I would put the risk more to the centre.
Great, so again, here, okay.
Thank you for that, Rebecca. Anybody else from the panel care to share where they would place these tokens?
I would probably place the project management ones around where the research one is on ‘Well-defined goals’ and ‘Detailed plan’. That’s just because in a number of projects… Oh, sorry, the one further to the left than that.
I’m trying to point at the screen. That’s no good, is it?
There, yes, I’d put both ‘Detailed plan’ and ‘Well-defined goals’ there. I think that’s because sometimes you can get plans which… For example, a marketing director may know they want to implement a new customer experience system. They know what they want it to do, but it’s very difficult to actually get the detail around what exactly does that mean. You’ll often set off with something a little more agile, but we know it’s in this direction. The risk one I find really difficult because it would vary by project. For example, I’ve definitely been involved in some projects where there’s not an awful lot of risk if it does go wrong, and we can take a more aggressive approach to risk. However, I have worked on projects like implementing GDPR standards, and it’s like there is absolutely zero risk tolerance within organisations to that. I’ve literally worked on projects that have been absolutely with project management at both ends of that spectrum, so I’d say it’s totally dependent on the actual project.
If you’re comfortable, Martin, I’ll put that in the middle and make a note of that because I think, yes, that’s really important. I think one of our postdoc participants identified that as well. Yes, it really does depend on the project, and you’re talking about when it’s a kind of legal – about legal compliance…
Legal and regulatory, yes, so compliance with the Data Protection Act, absolutely zero risk tolerance in organisations. However, if you’re building a customer segmentation, if it goes wrong, well, you have another go, basically! You’ve got a far more open attitude to risk. You can try a new technique and if it doesn’t work, you just try another one. It causes a slight delay but generally, you’ve got a more open environment in certain project areas. Yes, there’ll always be legal and reg ones that are right over on the left-hand side.
Yes, okay. I’m going to put two down just so I can capture that variety rather than just plonk everything in the middle.
Would it be fair to say, though, that even if something is not as high risk as a regulatory or legal compliance project, would you agree or disagree that within a project management context, even if there is high risk, that an organisation would always seek to mitigate that risk, or do you think that there are more risk-taking approaches?
There’s less projects that have got a higher approach to risk, but they certainly do exist. Certainly, within one of the retailers I used to work for, we did a project looking at basically social media analytics and text-mining of social media data, and it literally was a: put somebody on this for a month. If they find anything interesting, wonderful. If they don’t find anything interesting, we’ve wasted a month of an analyst’s time, but we think there might be something in there – go, have a dig. Knock yourselves out. See what you can find. It’s rare you get a brief that’s that open, but they do exist, and you can get projects which are in the, yes, go dig – if you find something… The chances of you finding anything may be slim, but if you find anything, it could be absolute gold, so yes, go away and have a look, so they do exist. There’s less of them.
Yes, yes, yes. I guess I would say there, that would be great if you had the opportunity to do that, but actually, a month of an analyst’s time, it’s probably not that great a risk within the broader context of the organisation.
That’s it, yes, within the context of the organisation, the team at that time was 15 people, so putting one of them on that project for a month, it was time-bound and it was great if you find something, but if you don’t find anything interesting within the month, we just pull the plug and put the analyst on a different project. So it was constrained within that risk element but fundamentally, it was a punt, yes.
Thank you, Martin. I guess that leads us nicely into that comparison with research. I don’t know if you’re happy to do the comparison with research here, but I’m going to contend…
I’m trying to push you into saying that research is high risk basically, but I don’t know in fact if you’d agree with that!
Yes, that’s fine. Again, the way I’ve used it – explore the unknown has been… I’d put the goals in about the same place because again we’ve tended to approach it as an adjunct to what was being done internally. It tends to be the: I’d love to put somebody on this internally but I don’t have the resource, but if I go down a route of working with academic institutions, I can kind of justify the investment. I think the detailed planning is closer to the middle because actually the students we’ve been involved in still need to actually pass the exams they’ve been set. You can’t exactly go, ‘Yes, just knock yourselves out,’ because the supervisor for dissertations is going to go, ‘Behave yourself, Squires. Sort out a plan. There’s going to be an exam at the end of this,’ sort of thing, so I think that one’s closer to the middle. As I say, it’s a peculiarity of how I’ve worked with CDRC.
No, that’s really useful. Thank you, Martin. This is shaping up to be quite an interesting visual. Chris, would you care to share your thoughts?
Yes, sure. I think it’s only because I worked in financial services for the last 11 years or so that I would… a lot of what we do is, like people have already said, it’s a very highly regulated industry, so we are having to meet specific deadlines. By this time, you must have implemented X or Y regulations, so I really think that a lot of our work is to the left on detailed plans, well-defined goals, really managing risk right down because we’ve got to hit those targets. Otherwise, you can risk fines or you’ll lose your licence to trade, that type of thing, and so I would put a lot of things over on the left. If I reflect on my own background as a humanities researcher, then I can think, yes, see how things go – I like that. I think it’s interesting in the humanities because you probably start off with a research question like: what’s the relationship between a festive culture and popular politics in late mediaeval England? That was what my PhD was on, so there’s a question and then you’re trying to look at the evidence base for where can you find linkages between those things, influences, which one is determining the other. So to me, it would be much more over on the right – you’re seeing how it goes, exploring the unknown by answering these questions. I think implicitly then you have a much higher risk in terms of… I was thinking, well, what is at risk in a PhD or a postdoc, but often it is: are you going to finish on time? Are you going to deliver results, an argument, a conclusion? Some of those things are the things at risk.
Thank you, Chris.
I guess the only other thing I would just say is that to me, project management itself is a way to manage risk, so when you apply a project management methodology to something, it is with the intention of lowering the risk. You can let people just get on with it, but that’s why we don’t because we apply project management because we perceive this to be risky, or have risk, and so we want to get that risk rating down towards the left, so project management’s always applied to something as a way to reduce risk in itself.
Okay, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Would you say that it’s more about a way of managing risk than a way of capitalising on an opportunity?
Yes, can be both. That is a good point. It can be both. I guess I’m a little bit thinking more from that point of view. Like I was saying before, we have to meet a deadline for implementing a regulation or to comply with something. In that case, it is about managing that risk, but yes, it’s a good point if you think about it from the point of view of capitalising on an opportunity, but again, you want to maximise the likelihood that you will capitalise on that opportunity, so again, you’re trying to de-risk it by applying project management principles.
Yes, thanks, Chris. Okay, this is really interesting. It’s actually looking like we’ve got a clear trend here with project management on the left on the more planned side, and research in contrast to that on the freer side, which I guess we probably would have expected. But I’m interested in Matina’s view and especially whether you think, Matina, that an Agile approach, as opposed to a more regulated approach to project management, might complicate this picture a little bit, given your experience of both.
Yes, thanks, first of all, I completely agree with Chris’s last point. This was a very good point that we use project management really to de-risk effectively what we are trying to do in any business setting. With regard to research, I think it depends a little bit… Of course, we try to generalise here, but it depends a little bit on the type of research and the activity within the research project, starting from the risk point of view. If, for instance, you’re doing clinical research and you are dealing with human samples, the process of getting those, everything is highly regulated. The tolerance for risk is extremely low to none, so the process of doing this would be, yes, exactly where you put it. On the other hand, if we are talking about the hypothesis and trying to identify, find something new, the research endeavour in itself, it seems that it is high risk, but if you think for a moment, is it truly high risk? If we don’t know, we are looking for an answer, whatever the answer is. If we have a predetermined view of what the answer is, then this is not research, what we are doing. Therefore, in my view, doing research is not necessarily – and it might sound controversial, this – it’s not really high risk. It’s just that you are looking for the unknown, but that’s why you’re doing research. You don’t know the answer. If you know it and you want a certain set of data, then this is not, in my view, research. So I would question the high-risk bit, and this is – I think one of the panel members mentioned ultimately the purpose is not what the answer will be, but it is that you conclude your project in time, your PhD, and within that, of course, there will be some findings. You may have what we call negative results to your hypothesis, but this is a finding and increasingly, we look to value this more in the research environment. That kind of takes away the sense of risk or reduces the risk as well conceptually, I think. With regards to well-defined goals, again, the same. The well-defined goals – if the goal is to finish your PhD or to finish your postdoc within the timeframe of your fellowship or your grant, then you have well-defined goals. If you are looking for certain specific answers, then maybe it’s not particularly a research project. Detailed plan – you do have a plan, but it can be iterative and again, this is the development of a research methodology, and it applies, I believe, in all disciplines. We kind of made that point, so that’s how research progresses as well. You have your question. You develop the methodology but also, you reach the endpoint of finding out the answer to what you asked. So a detailed plan I tend to be more at the lower end. There is this kind of Agile way of seeing this!
Are you happy with the middle? Does the middle sound…?
No, I would put it a little bit further, as I look at it, to my left.
Yes, see this is interesting actually, Matina. You’ve got the most recent active research background and you’ve actually brought the research – you’ve moved the research more to the more planned, less risky side. Which is interesting because actually, this brings us to sharing and looking a little bit about the response of some of our postdoc participants here today because actually, there was a real variety across here. There wasn’t, I don’t think, a really… I don’t think there was as clear a distinction between PM and research. I’ll quickly – I will share a collated version of this with you guys after today, but just as an example, if you look at the top, can you see that? What can you guys see at the moment?
The same slide from previously.
Oh, okay, all right. I’m not… I tell you what, I’ll share it at another time, but what I can say is that a lot of the participants who shared the pre-work, some actually put research more to the left than project management. I thought that was quite interesting and we’ll share that with everybody after the session. Could I ask now for any of the participants, especially those who completed the research, if they’d like to speak up and share their thinking or any reflections, whether their thoughts have changed based on hearing this discussion from the panel members or any comments or questions at all from our postdocs? Feel free to just speak up because I can’t actually see…
Yes, hi, my name’s Rosa and yes, I’ve been working in research for more than 15 years now. I think I agree with Martina definitely, but the research depends on the project. I’ve been on applied projects. Actually, I am on an applied project because I do biotechs and I do biology now, but I’ve been also on a discovery project. The discovery project is more about how things go, because you can make a plan. I’ve been and discovered something. Obviously, I need to do the experiment, discover a piece of the puzzle and then I need to go back on it and try to help that puzzle. This can be very time-consuming, can be high risk because, although you have a negative answer to your question, as Matina would say, it’s still data, but sometimes you cannot publish it. For me, this is high risk because especially in my career, if I am a postdoc, of course, I don’t have the PhD to finish so it’s no more than like a title, but to get credit on my work, so that’s my risk. That is high risk, but now that I am on an applied project, obviously, the plans have more details because I know what I am looking for. Then it’s just to show if my idea is correct or not, so everything moves very fast because you can go in the lab and do the experiment. Okay, it didn’t work – let’s move on to something else…
Thank you for that, Rosa, yes. Sorry, carry on – I thought you’d finished.
Oh, no, I was going to say I think it depends – can be on the left, on the right of research. Really depends on the kind of project that you are working on, I think.
Yes, yes, and I’m interested to know if our postdocs agree that more of a risk management, perhaps project management informed approach to research delivery, if they perceive any increase in that or any trend towards that approach at the moment. Just shout out or…
Yes, for me personally, it does, for example. I have noticed it. I’m trying to… I manage a lot of PhD students now and I’m trying to make them to understand that probably it is because for me now, as I said, from my experience it’s all about project management even when you do research. I think we do research because we love it obviously, but if often we are just focused on going to the lab and do a lot of data, at the end of the day, you are on your desk with so much of your data that you don’t know how to put them together and this doesn’t really give you a final paper that you can publish. I think we should have more of the mind that says, okay, I would like to do this. However, it’s… I also think these days it depends on the demand of what also… It’s all about bio-illumination these days, and try to be on a green environment, so a lot of research has happened over there as well, so that’s my own…
Just food for thought, just a couple of things that came to mind when you were talking. Is there something about research that if…? I personally don’t think that if every researcher adopted a project management approach, that would be the best thing. There are some benefits of a project management approach, but there are probably some negatives as well, especially in a research context. You do want to be able to see how things go, in some ways, but then… Yes, I wonder if the panel have any thoughts on that.
I think within any good team, being able to play to the strengths of the individual is really important. Some people are natural project managers and they do it really well, and within a research environment, it’s their thing and they push things on, and they act in that way. Then there are at the other end of the spectrum people who are much better at seeing how things go and can live with the risk of that and everything else. I think, as you form your teams, it’s really important to think about the mix of people within that team so that you get a good balance, in my view.
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