The Increasingly Important Role Of Project Manager In Life Sciences

December 7, 2017

Contributed Commentary by Andy Mehrotra

December 7, 2017 | Have you been assigned to manage a business problem that has a beginning and an end? Do you have a planned set of tasks that, when executed well, will produce something valuable? Are your work days never quite the same?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you serve as a project or program manager (PM) in your job.

To better understand this concept, let’s take a close look how the Project Management Institute (PMI) qualifies a project:

1) Projects have a specific start and end time

2) Projects are unique and not a routine operation

3) Projects have a specific set of tasks designed to accomplish a singular goal or business objective. So, a project team often includes people who may not usually work together—sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.

A new product launch, a clinical study, or regulatory submission are all examples of projects in life sciences.

Industry’s Most Wanted: Skilled PMs

In addition to life sciences, many industries require skilled, strategic-minded PMs. As a result, they are in high demand. PMI’s Talent Gap Report projects a 12% growth in project management roles between 2010 and 2020. The life sciences industry, in particular, is expected to increase by 30%—the highest of any industry.

John Todd, vice president of professional development at PMI MassBay, notes that a lack of qualified PMs in the life sciences industry will result in training individuals from other industries that are adept at managing complex projects. He claims, “It’s a major challenge because life sciences projects are unconventional in that they are heavily regulated, longer, more complex, and dependent on clinical outcomes. Drug development uses a phase-gate and waterfall approach, much like other industries, though the unpredictability of a human body’s response to novel therapeutics makes these projects very complicated.”

In performing their jobs, PMs in the life sciences are taking on more cross-functional responsibilities. And while asked to wear many hats, they must still ensure the final product or program is delivered on time, within budget, and in compliance. To make their work even more challenging, life sciences PMs are often not equipped with advanced technology needed to assist them in their tasks and are often stuck using rudimentary spreadsheets or limited applications not designed for specific industry needs.

According to Todd, life science companies must empower PMs with more robust technology that meets unique industry needs. With leadership and communication important factors in predicting future success, he notes that, “modern technology can make softer skills like communication easier to master.”

The Right Tools Make a Difference

In addition to supporting personal skillsets, the right applications and tools help PMs effectively manage their staff and tasks throughout each step of a program or project. The right technology is critical whether the project is far-reaching, like a global clinical trial, or smaller, such as establishing a new quality management process. Unfortunately, research shows that the vast majority of life sciences PMs still depend on the basic Microsoft Suite of Office applications to track timelines and resources, sometimes customizing them for their unique needs or stacking unrelated applications to address industry-specific requirements.

Enterprise project collaboration (EPC) software, however, is built specifically for the life sciences industry to help biotech and pharmaceutical companies meet their primary goals:

  • Centrally managing the development of a broad, diverse portfolio with a small multifunctional team
  • Efficiently collaborating with a virtual network of strategic partners to maintain an lean infrastructure
  • Expediting product development while anticipating risks to quickly change course as needed

These technologies places everyone on one platform for an easy integration of different programs. Now PMs can collaborate with different team members and external vendors at higher standards. They can visualize workflows in real time to better track progress, identify problems early, and ensure compliance continuously.

Peer-to-Peer Feedback Yields High Quality

Simply completing tasks on-time, on-scope, and on-budget rarely produces stellar outcomes for any project. By ensuring a high standard of work quality for each completed deliverable, project managers can achieve exceptional outcomes. Consider the impact of delivering and receiving feedback from team members at every step of a drug development program or commercialization project. When project teams know how their work affects the total project, that others care about the quality of work, and that deliverables are more than checks on boxes, engagement gradually rises… as does performance.

With this functionality embedded into project technologies, PMs can recognize team contributions and further propel performance. In the long term, this interaction ensures continuous quality improvement. Moreover, regular checks on work quality and feedback data provides the basis for team leaders to conduct more meaningful and tangible annual performance reviews.

As important, such timely and relevant feedback on work quality aligns with how the new generation of employees likes to work. Today’s millennial workers don’t want to wait a year to talk to their supervisors. In fact, nearly 85% of millennials in a 2015 TriNet survey said they’d feel more confident having more frequent conversations with their managers. Peer-to-peer feedback gives workers the opportunity to continuously grow their skills and build trust with their managers, leading to greater retention. Providing the opportunity to conduct meaningful discussions with managers on a regular basis is also a recruitment tool for this important pool of resources.

Five Ways to Maximize Gains from PMs in the Knowledge Economy

1.  Empower Project Teams with Relevant Technology

Legacy applications, unrelated software, and old ERP systems stagnate progress and create silos among stakeholders. Rather than support the progress of programs, old technology actually increases the burden, timelines, and costs of introducing new drug developments to market. Cloud-based collaboration softwares are built to address the specific processes related to life sciences industry. By providing transparency and visibility across the full lifecycle of drug development and commercialization, advanced technology builds a stronger, more connected organization.

2.  Establish Transparency & Accountability Across the Enterprise

With visibility across the entire workflow, PMs can better understand the interdependencies between functional teams and individuals, workflows, and group tasks for improved oversight and accountability. By establishing an integrated project collaboration model with full transparency and visibility into work processes, team leaders can prioritize workflows for meeting corporate objectives, interact more effectively with team members to stay on course, and make informed decisions throughout the product development lifecycle.

3.  Create Opportunities for Cross-Functional and Cross-Organizational Collaboration

Every stakeholder—whether a member of an internal functional team or an outsourced business partner—must work closely and remain in sync to streamline communication and improve outcomes. By working on a single, collaborative platform, everyone works on the same page toward a united mission. It’s important that life sciences companies remove barriers that cause friction and lost productivity in data exchange so team members can work together more productively at executing the corporate strategy. It takes enterprise-wide project collaboration to create the best results, especially with the highly complex, multifaceted, cross-functional tasks associated with a drug launch or clinical trial.

4.  Increase Project Engagement with Peer-to-Peer Feedback

A yearly review isn’t enough, especially for millennials.  Team members want the opportunity to exchange feedback on a regular basis with co-workers and project managers. By providing constructive assessments upon completion of every deliverable, PMs establish stronger relationships with their teams by recognizing their work and  helping them develop their skills. Employees who frequently interface with supervisors gain trust and the motivation to continue to develop their skills to provide an even higher standard of performance.

5.  Align Processes with Corporate Objectives

Companies must integrate corporate objectives and functional goals with technology by establishing processes, structure, organized workflows, and the proper tools as the foundation for company operations.  This technology infrastructure will help project managers and team members better understand the strategic status of programs and potential obstacles in achieving correct results, to bring a drug to market faster, more economically and in compliance.


Andy Mehrotra is the founder and CEO of EightSpokes and a former executive with Abbott. With advanced degrees in health, science, and technology plus over two decades of experience in life sciences and technology disciplines, Mehrotra has spent his career learning the art and science of bringing innovative therapeutic products to market. He can be reached at