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How much will it cost? When will you deliver results? How will you assure delivery?

These are typical questions that we can expect at the start of a project. They are also the sort of questions that appear on academic grant applications, where researchers bid for funds.

Some projects follow none of the rules. I have been reading about the 2018 Nobel Prize winners. The prize for physiology and medicine went to James Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”. The prize for physics went to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland “for ground-breaking inventions in the field of laser physics”.

Discovery and ground-breaking inventions. These don’t come with deadlines and strict budgets. These are a very different kind of project from the ones many of us do. But no less valuable.

As a former physics researcher, I am always interested by the science prizes. And it makes me wonder: did I learn project management doing physics research?

On reflection, the answer is ‘yes, in part’. But I did learn more organising events for my students’ union as an undergraduate!

Scientific research is a special type of project environment. Many projects can be defined clearly and planned carefully. But you can’t tell what will happen, because, if you could, it wouldn’t be research. You need room to diverge from the plan and follow side paths.

Building the equipment you’ll use, and commissioning it, follows familiar project management rules. But, once you start doing science, all bets are off. Indeed, the best results are the ones you wouldn’t – or, better still, couldn’t – have predicted.

And the big discoveries, the Nobel-worthy, world-shifting breakthroughs, usually come from unexpected directions – apparently out of nowhere.

Are those scientists lucky? Yes, of course. But they are lucky because they prepared well and because they paid attention to things others may not notice.

There is another factor too. Recently, I watched the film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I was delighted to see that it mostly respected the science. Mostly. It wasn’t the first time a realistic manned space-flight movie inspired a sense of awe for the project manager’s potential. I had the same feeling about the film Apollo 13.

That feeling did not come from the long-duration, steady project management behind the design, build and launch of a space mission over many years. In Apollo 13, what excited me was the calm, deliberate approach to solving problem after problem, one at a time. Identify the problem, find a solution, plan it out, and execute it quickly. The character of NASA flight director Gene Kranz was played by Ed Harris: “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

For me, that’s the true spirit of project management. Far too many people argue about the pros and cons of predictive and agile project management approaches and miss the key truth. The essence of project management is problem-solving. You must be a problem-solver.

Look at every problem as a chance to roll up your sleeves and figure it out. That’s the fun, and it’s also how we earn our keep. Anyone can follow a plan. The challenge is to create one from nothing, at the start of your project. And then to create new plans to tackle every setback and unexpected bend in the road.

In The Martian, lead character Mark Watney is marooned on Mars, with a long time before any chance of a rescue: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m gonna have to science the s*** out of this.”

Our job is often to figure out how to build what we need out of the tools we have at hand. Nature didn’t intend that flint and a mix of metals including iron and carbon could be useful in making fire. But humans figured that out.

What you do day-to-day is hardly the same as surviving on Mars. But that is the spirit you need.

For the biggest advances, science doesn’t follow project management rules. It’s more like an explorer who may have a destination but is in no hurry to get there. It charts unknown territory and solves problems as it goes.

That’s what we do when we’re at our best. Plan or no plan, predictive or agile, project management is all about exploring and solving problems.

This article originally appeared in the winter 18 issue of Project, the official journal of the APM. APM members can read the full issue. Or you can request a copy.

Image: alexacrib/Shutterstock.com

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