We all make mistakes, particularly when it comes to managing something as challenging and complex as research. Here we show you three of the most common traps researchers can fall into when they start to manage research and how you can avoid them.
Trap one: Micromanaging
Micromanaging is about trying to manage too much at once. Managing research is a fine balance between seeing the wider picture and focusing on the details. When we micromanage, we focus too hard on the details until we can no longer – as the saying goes – see the wood for the trees. Despite stemming from a desire to be in control, it usually has the opposite effect and can lead to anxiety and overwhelm. One response to this is to keep track of fewer things at any given time, but how do you know which of these things are the most important and that you haven’t abandoned something that will later turn out to be crucial?
Trap two: Not monitoring frequently or regularly enough
Let’s face it. We all have plenty of demands on our time. Priorities change and weeks, if not months, can easily slip by without checking in and seeing what project deadlines are approaching that need your attention. Managing several projects? Then the chances of falling into this trap can quickly multiply.
The trouble with not monitoring a project frequently enough or regularly enough is that too much time can elapse before you realise there is a problem – time that could have been spent taking action to resolve the issue and preventing it becoming serious. Many projects have such tight timescales (and budgets) that they simply don’t have the flexibility to accommodate delays. Before you know it, your project starts to over-run.
Trap three: Not identifying the bottlenecks
Bottlenecks are those elements of a project where tasks and resources are squeezed, sometimes to the point that nothing can get through. The cause may be anything from not enough people to do the work needed at a given time, lack of access to vital information or study participants, or equipment that isn’t available or breaks down when you most need it.
The problem is not so much that these things happen – all projects face constraints, after all – but that so many are foreseeable, yet not identified, before they wreak havoc on a project that was, until that point, going so well. Too often the critical elements of a project and the likely impact of bottlenecks occurring are not highlighted when they should be, during the planning stage, meaning solutions to address and overcome them are not anticipated, budgeted for, or built into the project’s workflow.
So, how do you avoid these three mistakes?
The best way to avoid all three is to use an effective and reliable process to manage your research. A good process provides a guiding structure and framework, ideally one that should be flexible enough to suit any research project and that you can build on as your skills and experience develop and grow, much like the process we use at Evaluation Works.
That process should include detailed project planning, assessing risks to your research project, breaking your project into manageable tasks and sequencing them effectively and efficiently so that you know which are critical to completing on time and where the bottlenecks are likely to be, avoiding trap number three. Doing this also lays the groundwork to avoid trap number one: micromanaging. This way you focus your attention on what matters most at any given time, rather than trying (and failing) to keep track of every detail.
As for trap number two, the key is to make monitoring and reviewing progress a regular habit. Mark it on your calendar as a regular appointment. How often will depend on the duration and complexity of your project, but once every month is a good place to start.
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You can find out more about the process we use by taking our online course Introduction to Research Project Management: How to Achieve Your Goals on Time and Within Budget (complete with downloadable templates and checklists to get your project off to a great start) or reading our latest book, How to Manage a Research Project: Achieve Your Goals on Time and Within Budget.