By Louis Garguilo, Chief Editor, Outsourced Pharma
“I’m not sure you want to hear my thoughts on project management in our industry.” That turns out to be the only statement Genzyme’s Carol Sherako and I disagreed on in what became two articles of her views.
For example, regarding the role of PMs in a cross-functional team: “You wouldn’t expect your medicinal chemist, or your pharmacologist, not to have basic skills. How is it then, that we as an industry don’t expect our program managers to have a set of basic skills? We're all core team members; the expectation is that we are all specifically trained for our professions.”
In fact, Sherako, Director Program Management at Sanofi-Genzyme, a licensed project management professional (Project Management Institute), business-management degree holder, and experienced biopharma professional on both the service provider and sponsor sides, had no idea how much I needed to hear what she has to say.
An Initial Investigation Into Project Management
That article starts with this question: “Are PMs, as they practice their trade today, up to the new challenges and intensifying outsourcing landscape?” It ended with something just short of a lament:
“Ultimately, today’s increased outsourcing, complex projects, new business models, advanced technologies and platforms, and faster timelines, all seem to add up to a simple need for more project managers in their current shape and form ... [it is] an industry mostly satisfied with the current roles of its project managers. I, for one, sit surprised at this result. Or perhaps we’ve missed something here.”
Thankfully, Sherako thinks we are missing something. The “shape and form” of those “current roles” refers mainly to our industry’s long-time practice of not hiring, or more importantly, systematically developing, individuals that a knowing-but-impartial observer would consider professionally trained project managers. Instead, the biopharma model typically transitions scientists and technicians into project managing roles, and has them “learn on the job” – from other, non-trained project managers.
“We had a joint alliance meeting to discuss schedules and project plans with an exciting, young biotech partner,” says Sherako. “As the meeting wrapped up, I overheard one of the younger scientists whisper to a colleague, ‘Well, none of our projects come in on time anyways.’ It was difficult not to turn around and say, “Well, I know why and I can help with that!”
At Least Know This
It’s important to get started here by making clear Sherako is not necessarily critiquing the biopharma industry’s main tactic for acquiring project managers (“transitioning” scientists). As we all know, ours is a highly scientific and technical industry. PMs benefit from a solid foundation of scientific understanding, and applied, critical thinking of what goes on in the lab or a drug development setting. “It’s hard not to have a science background and be a project manager in this industry,” Sherako agrees.
This is rather a critical analysis of how project managers should be trained, and establishing a fundamental, project-manager skillset. If anything, expectations should be set much higher.
For Sherako, a baseline prerequisite for anyone entering project management would be to have studied the principles in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). “Project management 101,” she says.
“First, to call yourself a project manager, you need the basic skills to understand how to take strategy and translate it into a detailed “work-breakdown” structure of all project activities,” Sherako says. When outsourcing a project, for example, this becomes the essential planning tool shared with both internal and external project teams (more on this specifically in our next article). “Planning activities, sequencing them, resourcing them, coming up with a schedule and then managing to a critical path – that is an absolute,” she says. “Sharing the overall project plan with your outsourcing provider, so everyone understands where they fit into the scheme, is enlightening and engaging for both sides.”
Any presumptive candidate for PM, says Sherako, should in fact have an inherent desire to understand what makes a project tick. “Unfortunately, this concept can get lost nowadays. Some project manager doesn’t have the awareness, or that drive, to translate research and development strategy into detailed activities and plans that can be supported by a cross-functional team. Yet, they want the title of project manager. It concerns me.”
A second prerequisite for project managers is to have industry-specific knowledge. “I don’t care if it’s the defense industry, or it's environmental remediation. This has to do with a deep understanding of the strategic stage-gates, and requirements to drive a project forward from discovery to commercialization within a highly regulated industry. If you’re discovering and developing drugs, then you need to know the entire industry framework you’re working within.”
Thirdly, Sherako visits the topic of “people skills,” an amorphous but always mentioned must-have for any position of leadership. “These are actually behavioral skills,” she explains. “In essence, this is how you work with project members so that each individual brings their functional expertise to the team setting. You need to think about member roles, responsibilities, conflict management, and communications.”
She adds: “If you don’t really understand or possess these skills, you don’t understand stakeholder management. You can’t bring your team through a risk management exercise. The biopharma company leaves so much on the table without project managers who have these skills.”
Proof In The PM Pudding
Sherako informs me that at Sanofi-Genzyme, initiatives to develop personnel – including PMs –continue to grow. This has led senior management to develop assessments to help answer questions such as: “What makes a cross-functional team tick? What enhances team performance? What are the skillsets needed to do so?” In 2015, the company devised an assessment to target the views of (frontline) project leaders regarding the effectiveness of project managers. (A lot more on these two subsets of PMs next time.)
As part of the effort, a detailed survey was given to project leaders, focusing on the running of their project, and asking specifically for feedback on the project managers. What did they discover? Project managers with the most training, and the best basic skillset specific to the role of project management, were rated the highest. Sherako is careful to say this was not an assessment on individuals per se, but nonetheless she’s encouraged it clearly demonstrates that PM training and skills development leads to greater effectiveness.
“The first point is that an awareness of basic skills for PMs will allow the industry to distinguish between the least and most impactful performers,” says Sherako. “Accordingly, career development programs for mastering those skills can be put in place.” We’ll learn more in our next article about some new training Sanofi-Genzyme enacted as a result of its look into the effectiveness of its PMs. We’ll also cover the difference and relationship between project leaders and project managers, as well as the project management dynamic between sponsors and CROs/CMOs.
And by the way, Sherako says some of her most vital, early-career training as a project manager actually came at the hands of a CRO. We’ll certainly take a look at that, too.