Survival Kit for Project Managers

Tools and Ideas to be faster.


So you think you’re stressed out? Imagine changing places with Judith Reynolds, the Quintiles project manager running trials for a new osteoporosis drug. Her project involves 17,000 patients in 16 countries. Her team has 200 members — including physicians, nurses, statisticians, and software specialists — and will process 2 million pages of clinical data. The trials have been going for three years and may last another five.


Even Maria Mele Dotson, 40, senior director of project management, marvels at the complexity of this trial. “Talk about staying power!” she declares. “Sometimes we have to be the tortoise rather than the hare.”

How does Quintiles train project managers like Reynolds, 32, for the strains and pressures they inevitably encounter? Dotson has written the book on the subject — literally. She’s the editor of “Good Worldwide Project Management,” the company’s how-to bible. She offers three major lessons.

Find Leaders with a Reason to Believe.

The typical first-time project manager has been with Quintiles for two or three years, worked on several project teams, and caught the eye of company veterans. But Dotson also looks for intangibles. “When a new project comes in the door,” she says, “I broadcast it to the organization: ‘Who wants to come forward and why?’ When people apply, I want to know if there’s something special motivating them. If it’s is a cancer drug, did their grandmother die of cancer? Have they always been eager to work with this particular client?”

Never Stop Training.

Dotson is a training fanatic. Training for new project managers involves 28 separate modules, including one called “Life in Projects.” It takes people through the range of project challenges and personal emotions they can expect to encounter. It even includes role playing for tough situations — calls to inform a client that a drug shipment will be delayed, ways to surface problems without demoralizing the team. “It’s hard to transfer judgment,” Dotson says. “The only way you do it is through simulation or actual experience.”


That’s where mentoring comes in. Every new Quintiles project manager is paired up with a project veteran. These mentors spend up to one-quarter of their time working with their young colleague. But there are strict limits about how involved they can get. Mentors can attend project-team meetings but can’t interrupt them. They can be present during calls to clients but can’t conduct them. They can read client correspondence from project leaders but can’t write it.

Regroup Every Week.

Life as a project manager revolves around managing surprises and making trade-offs. That’s why work at Quintiles is organized around a weekly schedule of updates, discussions, and decisions. This weekly rhythm puts a premium on fast information and decisive action. Every Monday, Dotson and her staff query project managers about their results, problems, and upcoming needs. On Tuesday, the staff meets with the company’s functional heads to review what support the projects need. On Wednesday, these functional groups hold regional conference calls to work out sensible allocations of resources and people. By Thursday, it’s time for the main event: a worldwide videoconference among all the project managers.

Sidebar: The Need for Speed

Thornton May’s official title at CTP is vice president of research and education. His actual role is far more intriguing. May runs CTP’s Management Lab, which tracks strategy and technology issues in 600 large companies. He’s part gadfly, part theoretician, part talk-show host. “I’m running a salon for smart people,” he jokes.

May, 39, is also a speed demon. “If you do not aggressively, tangibly, and visibly manage time in your organization,” he warns, “you’re history.” Here are his three pointers on the need for speed.

Speed and Strategy.


“Time is the only unambiguous performance measure. It’s everywhere you look. How long does it take customer-service people to answer the phone? How long does it take a software company to bring out the next release? Business isn’t about return on investment; it’s about return on minutes.”

Speed and Teams.

“Focusing on time changes how companies work. It’s like being on a great sports team. There are individual heroes, but the team is what counts. Unlike sports, though, teams in business are self-disciplined. Companies look like giant pickup games. People who want to get things done have to ask themselves, Who do I want on my team? And people have to want to be on your team. If people don’t want to work with you, you can’t do your job.”

Speed and Youth.

“Young people are time bandits. They watch 200 images per minute on MTV, talk on the phone, play a computer game — and still say they’re bored! That’s why this is a great time to be a young person in business. Focus and fearlessness are what count. This company is full of Generation X people who simply don’t know that the technologies they’re using ‘don’t work.’ They want the jobs nobody else wants. That’s what’s cool.”