This simple tool can help you manage multiple research projects

How to master the art of prioritization.

23 January 2020

Carsten Lund Pedersen

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One of the most difficult things in research is to pick, prioritize, and pursue the right research projects.

I’ve struggled with this in the past, and often found myself juggling different papers simultaneously in a race to keep up with my various research interests and publication pressures.

This isn’t a sustainable solution for any researcher in the long run. Fortunately, I’ve found a solution in the field of project management.

The time and energy crunch

The life of a researcher is in many ways centered on managing and implementing a portfolio of different projects on an ongoing basis. It only makes sense, then, to learn from the experts.

Since the invention of the Gantt chart in 1917 and the subsequent professionalization of project management in the 1950s, an array of useful tools has emerged.

One such tool is the project management triangle, which says that all projects have three constraints (scope, time, and costs), which ultimately determine the quality of the project.

If you change one of these elements (e.g. you increase the scope), it will have consequences for the other elements (increased scope would need more time and higher costs to succeed).

These triple constraints have been used by everyone from IT professionals to graduate students in managing projects.

For my own projects, I like to reframe the triangle (see the figure below). In my experience, ambition, time, and energy are the main constraints that determine the quality of a research project.

project management triangle

For example, if you want to see your research on the cover of Science or Nature, producing high-quality science alone isn’t enough. You’ll need substantial time and energy (and a bit of luck) to achieve your very high ambitions.

Of course, both time and energy are finite resources that you need to spread across your various competing projects.

Each time you’re faced with an interesting research project, you need to ask yourself three questions:

  1. What is the level of ambition for this project?
  2. Given the level of ambition, how much time and energy can I realistically commit to the project?
  3. Should I terminate some of my other projects in order to participate?

The answers you give may well reveal that you can only take on a very limited role in the project – and only after you’ve completed one of your other demanding projects.

In this way, the model can help you to plan and prioritize your time and energy across your portfolio.

It’s a trade-off

Once you’ve committed to a research project, it’s also important to note that conflicts between the constraints may arise during the implementation phase.

For instance, if teaching assignments suddenly invade your semester, then you may need to revise the ambition and energy levels to better match the time you can realistically allocate to the project.

I’ve started to use this method myself by creating an overview of my present projects and assessing each of them in terms of the triple constraints.

This has resulted in the termination or postponement of several projects and the limiting of my role in other projects, so I can focus on a few key projects instead.

Doing so has made my work life less stressful, and I feel that I’ve delivered much better on key projects because of it.

The most important insight I’ve learned from this tool is that my personal resources are limited and therefore trade-offs must be made each day. If I fail to make those difficult decisions, I risk burning myself out and can jeopardize the quality of my work.

Our projects and personal productivity are too important to be misaligned or mismanaged.

We need to be making clever choices on tricky trade-offs (no projects were harmed during the writing of this article.)

Carsten Lund Pedersen is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the Copenhagen Business School.

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