By Kevin Magalhaes, MBA, PMP, Program Management Director at Relay Therapeutics – Kevin is an experienced program and project management professional with a demonstrated history of success working in the life sciences industry.

Kevin Magalhaes

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual March Madness® basketball tournament is here and the National Basketball Association’s playoffs are around the corner. As an avid fan of basketball, I couldn’t resist using the sport to establish an accessible example of a project leadership organizational model from the perspective of a biotechnology organization.

My ten years of experience as a project manager and leader in the biotechnology space have indicated to me that there is an opportunity to establish more accessible examples of the project leadership model. Unlike larger pharmaceutical companies, smaller biotechnology organizations generally have a nascent understanding of the project management profession and rarely deploy project management offices or project management informational systems depending on the maturity of the organization.

The questions I have most frequently received are “What is it that a project (or program) manager does?” or “How is the role different than the project leader?” To put this into context its helpful to understand that in the world of biotechnology, specifically therapeutic discovery and development, most projects originate from scientific ideas that are thoughtfully prosecuted by academically qualified scientists, medics, or other healthcare professionals. As these ideas nourish into projects, new project professionals of various educational backgrounds enter the organization to facilitate the planning and execution as sizeable resources and financial investment is allocated. The entrance of these new project professionals begins to spark those questions listed above from the incumbent players.

Now let’s look at how a professional basketball team is organized to help answer those questions.

The General Manager
Think of the General Manager (GM) as your project governance and/or project sponsor. The GM, in collaboration with the team owners, sets the vision and strategy for a basketball team. Is it a long-term rebuilding strategy which would require adopting a resourcing strategy of recruiting young players with the goal of developing their basketball skills to win a championship in the long run? In contrast, is a near-term championship the goal which would require an alternative resourcing strategy of spending on skilled veteran players to complement the current team? Furthermore, as the season progresses and the GM observes the team’s performance or receives reports from the coaching staff and players, adjustments can be made to release, trade, or hire players and coaches according to a plan that the GM believes will enable strategic realization.

The Coach
The Coach in this example is your project leader. The coach deploys the team (i.e. resources) allocated to him against game plans that he or she believes will deliver on the goal at hand. The coach runs practices with the team to make sure game plans are risk mitigated and issues in team tactics are identified in collaboration with the players prior to game time. The coach then directs the game by drawing up plays, consulting his/her coaching staff, and adjusting team line ups.

The Players: Point Guard
Think of the Point Guard as your project manager. The point guard on a basketball team establishes the offense and is the first point of defense. Importantly, the point guard is the primary handler of the basketball. In this example we treat the basketball as if it were all of the information generated or required on a project. The point guard as the primary handler of the basketball facilitates the movement of the ball (i.e. communication) through routine passing in search of an open scoring opportunity. The point guard as a facilitator of the information also is accountable to setting and executing the plays established by the coach (i.e. the project leader).

The Players: Teammates
There are multiple positions on a basketball team beyond the point guard ranging from shooting guards, forwards, and centers. Each of these positions requires a certain skillset and set of attributes akin to a matrixed and cross-functional team. If a basketball team was playing against a rival team comprised of extremely tall players making it challenging to score points in close proximity to the basket, then one could imagine that the coach would choose to resource the team and devise a corresponding game plan that entails scoring points at a distance. In this example, the point guard would facilitate the movement of the ball to enable scoring opportunities for teammates that are skilled at shooting the ball from a distance.

The Player-Coach:
The final role to highlight is a Player-Coach. This role isn’t a formal role but is described here to indicate that project management is evolving to be a much more strategic role and is not limited to only execution and administrative aspects of a project. The player-coach is someone that commands the team while working with the team. Think of a player who has been in a professional league for 10+ years and who has built an experience set that includes multiple high stakes playoff games, winning a championship, or even losing one. This person is extremely valuable to the team because they serve as a thought partner to the coach, a talent developer for their teammates, and a guide during the game in identifying issues or required changes to the strategy and tactics.

This basketball example is one that I routinely use and I recognize that it only scratches the surface of the knowledge areas required for a project management professional, but my goal in sharing this with you was to bolster the understanding of the project management profession and hope that it inspires other accessible examples for use in your organizations.

Go Celtics!