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Project management: the essential enabler for leaders in healthcare, life sciences and pharma’s transformation journey

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It’s easy to see the association that the profession of project management has with building and engineering. We’re all used to seeing tales of drama relating to our biggest building endeavours, in the media. Often of severely delayed delivery, huge overspends — or both! 

However, I think we all recognise project management has much wider applications than just ‘building big stuff’. Of course, it has helped put humans on the moon, it has constructed and delivered countless Olympic Games, including London 2012, and enabled the UK to put two new aircraft carriers to sea. As someone who’s spent parts of their career in infrastructure and defence, you can’t deny the tangibility and incredible scale of the outcomes that project professionals deliver in these spheres. However, how often have we seen the Human Genome Project celebrated? An initiative that was delivered two years early and significantly under budget — and has created the basis for scores of research initiatives that will lead to new treatments. 

Yet in healthcare, life sciences and pharma where we also deliver projects day in, day out, the impacts we create are incredible but sometimes less tangible. And let’s face it — they are less celebrated perhaps because we take them for granted. PMs in healthcare, life sciences and health are PMs who are quite literally saving lives. From new ventilators and PPE to vaccines and new drugs, project management was critical to getting us through the peak of the COVID pandemic. Yet before and since, project management and project management professionals in health and life sciences have quietly got on with delivering transformation that matters. 

Here lies a hidden truth: health is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the human race. Global warming kills 300,000 people a year, but antimicrobial resistance kills 5m. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst lifespans are increasing, the time we spend in poor health is increasing too: an aging population, a tidal wave of metabolic disease and a shortage of healthcare and life sciences workers, are creating complex problems that project management will be critical to solving.

And as the updated Golden Thread report from APM and PwC identifies, healthcare, pharma and life sciences contributes £17.5bn GVA to UK Plc and employs over 220,000 people, in comparison, the UK’s defence sector contributes £12 billion GVA to our economy — but let me emphasise that this isn’t a competition! 

There’s also no doubt we exist in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment. The need for organisations and even nations to be agile and resilient, is stark. Like other sectors, healthcare, life sciences and pharmaceuticals are experiencing massive disruption that demands ambitious transformation. Project and change management are the enablers for achieving this transformation — even if many leaders think of project management as a transactional, process driven discipline that adds low value. It’s not just about transformation, though, as project management helps bring new drugs to market and is helping digitise the NHS. 

Therefore, it’s no longer sufficient to view project management as a mere administrative function; it’s a strategic necessity. Transformation requires a cohesive approach, blending innovative technology with change management, and here project management plays a pivotal role as it does with more tactical initiatives such as grant programmes. 

Healthcare, particularly the NHS, is a prime example where project management has become increasingly important. The doubling of project management roles within the NHS in the past six years is a testament to this growing recognition. However, there is a pressing need to bridge the gap between subject matter expertise and project management skills. Leaders need to champion this integration to ensure that healthcare project teams are not just technically competent, but also equipped with the necessary project management skills to effectively drive change. We need diverse multidisciplinary teams, driving towards strategically set end goals anchored in a long-term, human centred perspective. 

In the pharmaceutical sector, project management is recognised as a critical asset in developing new pharmaceuticals and bringing them to market efficiently. The intricate process of developing, testing and marketing new pharmaceutical products in today's fast-paced and regulatory complex environment demands robust project management to streamline efforts and ensure efficacy. 

Leaders must advocate for a structured approach to project management. This includes investing in training and development to cultivate a pool of skilled project managers who can take on the unique challenges of the healthcare sector. These professionals should not only manage projects but also lead change, influencing organisational culture and driving transformation initiatives. Engaging with the APM is an excellent first step. 

In addition, the integration of digital technologies in healthcare and pharma is not a one-off project, but a continuous journey. Leaders must see project management as a means to build resilience and adaptability in their organisations, making them more agile and responsive to the ever-evolving healthcare landscape. This approach will enable their organisations to thrive, even in a VUCA world, by turning challenges into opportunities for growth and innovation. 

My call to action is this: if you’re a leader in healthcare, life sciences or pharma, your task is to elevate project management from a functional role to a strategic enabler. By doing so, they can effectively lead their organisations through the complexities of transformation, ensuring that they not only survive but thrive in the ever-changing global healthcare arena. The future of healthcare depends not just on technological advancements, but on harnessing the opportunity to make change happen.


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