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Project Management in Science

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Project Management:

What are we talking about?

  • project management is the discipline of planning, organising, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives
  • a project is a temporary endeavour, having a defined beginning and end (usually by date, but can be by funding or deliverables), and which is undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives
  • the temporary nature of a project is in contrast to business-as-usual (or operations) which are repetitive or (semi-)permanent functional work to produce products or services
  • the management of the two types is typically very different, and requires distinct technical skills, and separate management approaches

The primary challenge of project management is then:

  1. to achieve the (engineering or scientific) project goals and objectives
  2. while at the same time adhering to a set of agreed project constraints, which are typically scope (objectives), time, and budget


  • do not expect a magic formula for success
  • good project management is mainly a question of:
  • an appropriate feasibility study
  • adopting realistic instrument/science objectives
  • appointing a suitably competent leader and team
  • having and assigning adequate resources:

i.e. budget, time, people, and facilities

  • ensuring a proper structure, and information flow
  • establishing, and adhering to, progress milestones
  • anticipating problems

Part I

Two example problem situations

...we will see how easy it is for projects to get into difficulty, from which recovery is very difficult...

Example 1

  • two projects have undergone technical feasibility studies. Both have been accurately costed, and realistic schedules have been defined:
  • project A: promises a fundamental contribution to some field A
  • project B: promises an equivalent contribution to a very different field B
  • project B is significantly cheaper, and can be done significantly faster
  • which should be accepted? which will be accepted?
  • after Project B has been accepted, it reports a cost increase of 10% due to unforeseen technical difficulties. What to do?
  • subsequent cost increases are 20%, then 50%, ...
  • this type of problem is seen repeatedly: one solution to it is cancellation (but ESA has never invoked it)
  • what can we learn from this?
  • the importance of experience and/or scepticism in judging a project’s feasibility
  • problems arise whenever (scientific) enthusiasm/optimism is allowed to overtake realism
  • more cynically (for Team A), intellectual honesty and scientific integrity doesn’t always pay
  • cancellation could be a powerful tool to encourage integrity and proper preparation

An example: BepiColombo

  • Accepted in 2000:
  • Mercury orbiter + lander
  • cost: 450 M€
  • launch: 2008
  • Current status (2013):
  • orbiter only (no lander)
  • cost: >1 B€
  • launch: 2015

Example 2

Gaia Phase B/C/D documentation from 1 industrial team (27 volumes)

40 experts participated in the review reviews are of limited use if not conducted properly!

Part II

Some management theory

Can management be taught?

  • The viewpoint of the 1960s-1970s:
  • management is mainly a matter of common sense
  • you either have the abilities of leadership and administration, or you do not
  • management, like parenting and politics, needs no training or qualifications (!)
  • Thereafter a growing understanding that:
  • common sense is not always in abundance, nor is it an absolute (Einstein considered common sense to be ‘the layer of prejudice laid down before the age of 18’)
  • leaders (and team members) do not always have an optimal skill set
  • the number of variables affecting any one project can be very large
  • predicting the outcome of multiple interactions is very difficult
  • Projects are miniature societies, and are affected by politics, i.e:
  • the power and authority of the leader, and the needs and motivation of their team
  • their leadership skills: knowledge, experience, leadership style, ethical standards, project goals
  • techniques of communication and persuasion
  • the many variables affecting the outcome of their project, including:
  • the environment: resources, administrative structure, available technology
  • the individuals: abilities, personalities, experience, motivation, age
  1. an awareness of some basic principles and tools
  2. a better understanding of how groups work together
  3. learning from past problems or failures in similar fields
  4. observing good (and bad) managers in action

Common sense and intuitive leadership can be improved by:

Theories of Organisations

  • ancient civilisations already ‘discovered’ how to organise large numbers of people efficiently
  • more recent theories started off simple, and have progressively become more complicated:
  • scientific approach (1880s, F.W. Taylor): plan ahead, allocate tasks and responsibilities, review results - the basis of scientific project management
  • human relations (1930s, Chester Barnard): people are not easily regimented and need to be persuaded; nor are outside influences stable
  • bureaucracy (1940s, Max Weber): specifies roles, tasks, and structures
  • power and conflict (1950s): different parts of a structure have different goals, and often fight to achieve them
  • the role and complications created by technology (1960s)
  • systems thinking: everything affects everything else, nothing can be understood on its own - explains everything but predicts nothing (cf economics)
  • institutional: each institution has its own way of working


  • a project leader must motivate and maintain the morale of the team, especially important in finishing projects (simple check on leadership)
  • much research about what motivates an individual
  • people choose professions according to orientation:
  • e.g. realists (engineering), intellectual (science, teaching), social (counseling), conventional (administration), enterprising (sales, politics), artistic (writing, music)
  • motivation arises from various needs, notably:
  • power:
  • high need for power alone results in non-constructive authoritarianism
  • combined with need for achievement can be very productive
  • necessary but insufficient for a good manager
  • achievement:
  • high achievers like responsibility, risk, and feedback
  • but high achievers may be individualistic
  • affiliation:
  • concerned with developing/maintaining relations instead of decisions/tasks
  • present, but seldom dominant, in successful achievers
  • managers should think what they are asking of their team, and how they control, motivate, and reward Douglas McGregor: The Human Side of Enterprise
  • proposed two extremes of assumptions about people:
  • the average person is inherently lazy, lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, and prefers to be led

☞ managers must direct, motivate, persuade, control, reward, and punish

  • motivation, potential for development, and capacity for responsibility are all present, although they may have become passive due to past experience

☞ managers must arrange conditions so that individuals can achieve these goals

  • a higher fraction of astronomy-based project teams may well comprise the latter type, but:
  • tasks, phases, and individuals may contain elements of the former
  • the intellectual drive of the scientist may dominate/perturb the practical demands or priorities of project work, unless adequately controlled

Leadership (1/3)

  • a complex field, central to project teams. Questions include:
  • can anyone make a good leader?
  • are there certain characteristics which ensure a good leader?
  • approaches fall under three headings - all are considered to have some truth, but all fail to fully explain (in-)effectiveness
  • trait theories, e.g. identifying:
  • intelligence: above average but not genius, good at solving complex/abstract problems
  • initiative/proactive: good at perceiving the need for action, and the urge to do it
  • self-assurance
  • enthusiasm, sociability, integrity, courage, imagination, decisive, determined, energy
  • do you agree? or have other character traits to add?
  • does it follow that a project leader with skills missing, or at a lower level, will face increased problems as the project proceeds?
  • higher managers have an obligation to select correct leaders

Groups (1/4)

  • much is written in management theory, covering:
  • what is a group?
  • what is the purpose of the group?
  • is there an optimum size?
  • are there guidelines for their composition?
  • what is a group?
  • can be formal (project team, committee, board) or informal (ad hoc, discussions)
  • can be permanent or temporary
  • can be liked by its members, or considered a total waste of time
  • can contain individualists (who dislike them) or team players (want participation by all)
  • can be effective in blocking ideas/progress, or the best way of putting them to work
  • can be established to terminate an activity or group, or to support and expand it
  • groups are of crucial importance for most scientific projects:
  • first look at some theoretical results
  • apply to some real project examples
  • suggest that this is carefully considered by all projects, with due guidance



Groups (3/4)

  • size of the group (e.g. science advisory team):
  • the larger the group, the greater the spread of talent, skills and knowledge (+)
  • the larger the group, the less chance of any given individual participating (-)
  • some people talk more easily than others (and these may be seen as having greatest influence); the influence pattern shifts to different personalities as the group gets larger
  • one task of the chair is to encourage those that have something to say, and vice versa
  • studies suggest 5-7 is optimum: yielding highest involvement, cohesiveness, and satisfaction
  • if larger groups are needed (knowledge breadth), the chair must be aware of size/influence
  • larger groups tend to have more absenteeism and lower morale
  • composition of the group:
  • leader and members must have the necessary skills and abilities
  • but a mix of characteristics and personalities is also necessary:
  • similar attitudes/values may result in a more stable team, promoting satisfaction
  • more heterogeneous groups may have more conflict, but may be more productive (its nature is important: wide variations in sensitivity/aggression can be negative)
  • a variation of influence within the team can be important
  • bottom line: teams need variety but compatibility - a team needs people who think differently, but not so differently that communication is impossible

Groups (4/4)

  • Meredith Belbin identified the ‘Apollo Syndrome’ (see wikipedia): unexpectedly poor results were generally found with teams comprising many sharp analytical minds and high IQs
  • why?
  • failure followed from fundamental flaws in the way such a team interacts
  • excessive time was spent in destructive debate: each trying to persuade others to adopt their view, or focused on identifying weaknesses in others arguments
  • difficulties in decision making, with little coherence in decisions reached
  • team members tended to act along their own favoured directions
  • showed little account of what other team members were doing or saying
  • the Apollo teams generally proved difficult to manage
  • there were some successful Apollo teams, characterised by:
  • the absence of highly dominant individuals
  • a particular leadership style: sceptical/suspicious, focusing attention on setting objectives and priorities

Meredith Belbin: Management Teams

- Why They Succeed or Fail, 1981 Belbin’s Teams - eight roles

  • chair: presides and coordinates:

- talker/listener; need not be brilliant/creative; works well through others;

disciplined, focused, balanced; good judge of people and things

  • shaper:

- outgoing/dominant, drives the action, has passion for the task

  • plant:

- intellectually dominant, imaginative, source of ideas, may be introverted

  • monitor-evaluator:

- intelligent, analytic rather than creative, dissects ideas and identifies flaws

  • resource-investigator:

- supplies new contacts/ideas; extrovert/sociable; not necessarily original or driver

  • company worker:

- organiser, scheduler/planner, methodical/efficient; not side-tracked by vision

  • team worker:

- holds the team together, supports/encourages others; popular/uncompetitive

  • finisher:

- meets deadlines, checks details, worries about schedules, injects a sense of urgency

  • + specialist (1988): brings ‘specialist’ knowledge to the team

Sir Hermann Bondi’s Position, letter to The Times, 31 May 1995

...addressing the massive cost and time overruns in recent

UK Ministry of Defense projects

  • Director General of ESRO (forerunner of ESA), 1967-1971
  • UK Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defense, 1971-77
  • Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy, 1977-1980
  • Chairman, Natural Environment Research Council, 1980-1984

Projects prosper if there is a powerful, centralised, unified project management team in place, with a project manager who is responsible for the project from cradle to grave

Once this manager has become familiar with the proposed task, the first essential job is to specify the resources of money, staff, time, and facilities required for completion, and to offer milestones of achievement along the way

The whole undertaking is likely to take many years, during which period none of the key staff should change

If the task is successfully accomplished in the time and with the resources they specified, a double promotion should be the reward; if they fail to deliver, retirement may well be appropriate

By contrast, insufficient authority for the management team, with frequent changes of its personnel, is a sure recipe for disaster

Part III

Project phases and schedules

Preamble: ECSS

The European Cooperation for

Space Standardisation (ECSS):

  • a coherent set of standards for use in European space activities
  • standards include management and software engineering
  • PI institutes (e.g. MPIA) probably use, e.g. clean room standards, procurement standards, testing standards, etc.
  • details:

ECSS Example


ESA typical mission lifecycle

Pre-Phase A

Concept Study

Phase A

Preliminary Analysis

Phase B

Definition Phase

Phase C/D

Design &


Phase E

Mission Operations

& Data Analysis target:

~8 years preliminary plan with cost data baseline technical solution, with requirements, schedules, and specifications building and integrating subsystems/experiments into a single spacecraft + assembly, integration, test


1-2 yr

1-2 yr

1-2 yr

3-4 yr


(see ECSS)

system requirements review (SRR)

system design review (SDR)

preliminary design review (PDR)

critical design review (CDR)

test readiness review (TRR)

flight readiness review (FRR)

The Triple Constraints: scope versus cost and time

Scope, or

Science goals

Cost (technology)


(and risk) first order cost estimates for ESA satellites:

  • price per kg for optics, electronics, etc
  • according to off-the-shelf, or development needed

Example: ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility

For new major projects, it may be useful to consider use of this - or other similar - facilities?

  • task scheduling is usually a standard aspect of the technical development of astronomy instrumentation projects
  • it may be useful for the scientific development aspects, including the data analysis development
  • it is an area where those with hardware development expertise could pass knowledge to the scientific teams to assist their schedule planning
  • tracking/reporting tools include milestone trend analysis
  • trends and deviations from the planned schedule can be recognised quickly

Milestone Trend Analysis

Schedule maintained

Schedule delayed

Schedule advancing reporting date milestone date