“Turns out there was a project meeting every week I didn’t need! I turn in work within two or three days instead of two weeks. There are ten more hours in my week I have free for work that I used to spend in meetings.” — LabScrum: A Case Study For Agility in Academic Research Labs
One of the biggest challenges scientists face is project management.
Scientific project management is complex. Commercial R&D requires fast progress cycles, clear status communications, and ruthless task prioritization. Combined with the uncertainties inherent to scientific ventures, silos of information, and the individual nature of scientific research, a lack of transparency often results, which can unfortunately de-motivate a team over the long term.
Most deep tech companies suffer from planning problems, delays in development, unforeseen activities, cost overruns, and losses resulting from high turnover. These shortcomings are often due to poor project handling by managers, who are frequently former academic scientists transplanted into management roles with little or no knowledge of the business side of science.
Laboratory work involves constant adaptation to new experimental findings. While we may plan to pursue specific research ideas at the beginning of a project, our follow-up questions are nearly always dependent on the early set of experimental results. And they are always subject to change. As such, scientific project management requires flexible workflows.
So-called agile project management methodologies offer solutions to these challenges. They originate in manufacturing and software engineering, and they provide an iterative approach that promotes efficiency and adaptability.
There are six steps to the agile project management process:
- Project planning
- Product roadmap creation
- Release planning
- Sprint planning
- Daily standups
- Sprint review and retrospective
Agile project management enables scientific teams to continuously improve their research workflows.
During project planning, team members work together to define and assess the overall strategic goals of the project.
One popular strategic direction framework (or PEST) analyzes the broader business environment and determines how the project fits in. Namely, the framework tries to answer the question: How does the project make the company more competitive in the market?
In answering this question, the framework considers various elements of the business environment:
- New regulations and policies
- Duties on imported supplies
- Government funding focus
- The interest rate on capital costs
- Foreign exchange rate
- Raw material and inventory costs
- Labor costs
- Access to credit
- Cultural trends
- Society’s beliefs and norms
- Changes to the existing technological landscape
- Competitor access to new technologies
- Over the last year, many more venture capitalists have begun to fund Covid startups, which has led to many existing biotech startups pivoting into mRNA startups.
- Over the past decade, the exponential decrease in cost to sequence the human genome resulted in a lower barrier to entry for biotech startups. This has led to the current biotech boom.
- With the rising awareness of the effects of climate change, consumers have begun to demand for more lower-carbon food sources, and this has led to an increase in demand for plant-based meat.
It’s important to understand the larger business environment so that leaders can continue to invest their time and money into the highest leverage activities and ensure that every project supports these activities.
Product roadmap creation
The product roadmap helps scientists better understand the big picture. It forces research leaders to identify key project objectives, assess how long specific objectives may take, define dependencies between the tasks, articulate a series of experiments necessary to obtain specific results, and allocate resources accordingly for each defined task.
Some other points to consider in a roadmap include:
- Initial study hypothesis
- Specific sets of experiments and tasks to be performed
- Methods for note, protocol, and data storage
- Mechanisms for open communication between members
- Particular analyses that will be needed
- Consideration about who has the expertise to perform the required experiments and analyses
- General timeline for milestone completion
Release planning defines the necessary completion of specific milestones before releasing the product. These milestones can vary. For example, if the end goal is to initiate a clinical trial for a new drug, a major milestone would be to complete an Investigational New Drug form with the FDA.
In sprint planning, the group identifies the tasks they will work on first and determines a timeline for sprint completion. Agile recommends breaking down long-term work into small chunks called sprints, which researchers can complete in two weeks (you can play around with the exact length of time).
In the spring planning stage, the group assesses and prioritizes the objectives and tasks created during the roadmap creation stage.
Depending on your specific type of research, each task can be assigned to team members by the Principal Investigator, claimed proactively by the individual researchers, or picked up as you go through the sprint.
Throughout the sprint, team members report on their progress on each task during short regular meetings called standups. As experiments and other laboratory tasks may take a few days to complete, a research group may decide to hold weekly standups instead.
These meetings are not intended to be long or exhaustive but are designed to provide the group with a brief recap of:
- What was recently completed.
- What will be completed next.
- What potential problems have arisen.
These checkups aim to keep everyone in the loop, review blockers that someone else might have a solution to, and create a sense of connection within the team.
Standups are essential because they allow projects to leverage the entire team’s full cognitive ability and experience. Also, these meetings create a culture of transparency and accountability between members, which builds trust within the group. Another critical aspect of standups is that they enable members to receive feedback quickly, which helps them overcome hurdles in completing their tasks.
Listen to University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience scientists talk about the benefits of regular standups:
The three questions typically asked at a check-in are:
- What have you worked on since the last standup?
- What will you work on next?
- Anything blocking your progress?
You can experiment with additional questions such as personal trivia or specific KPIs, but it’s best to keep these light so that the standup does not become a burden.
Remember that standups are supposed to be short (<15min). Any discussion topics or blockers highlighted during a standup should be discussed in a separate meeting or text conversation with only the most relevant team members present.
Reviews and retrospectives
At the end of the sprint cycle, the entire group meets to review the work that has been completed. The group shares results from the experiments, potential issues with methodologies, and strategies for overcoming these issues in the future. During this review, the group may identify additional tasks to work on in future sprints.
The review usually takes about an hour and provides a chance for team members to collect feedback and discuss any difficulties that prevented tasks from being completed on time.
The review is followed by a retrospective, typically a 30-minute meeting where the team reflects, discusses, and suggests improvements to the research and project management process itself. For example, a research group may have been communicating experimental results via email, and these results were getting “lost” in members’ mailboxes. Thus, the group then discussed new communications strategies, such as a document sharing program, to share information during the next sprint.
As with standups, reviews and retrospectives are typically conducted in person or over Zoom, but some teams have found success with shared retrospective documents coauthored asynchronously by the team.