Project management: go with the flow

Both grants have been submitted, my desk and email inbox have been tidied, and sanity has been (partially) restored. That was one crazy round of CIHR grant applications, even more so than usual, but – as always – we pulled it together at the last minute.

Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ve resumed a new favourite task – translating grant proposals into flowcharts.

We’re starting a couple of very complicated multi-site studies, and I’ve been finding this exercise enormously helpful. Not only does the process really crystallise the research plan in my mind, it also helps with the creation of tracking spreadsheets which in turn help me keep tabs on progress, identify delays and bottlenecks, and write annual reports.

In this flowchart, each colour represents a sample (or set of samples), and the corresponding coloured arrows map the flow of each sample / set of samples through the various processes and analyses involved in the project. Roman numerals correspond to the five Aims of this sub-project (one of five sub-projects that make up the study as a whole); numbers in parentheses refer to the page of the proposal on which the samples / processes /analyses are described.

This process really appeals to the same logical part of my mind that fell in love with Mendelian genetics. Yes, I know that biology is too messy to be organised into nice neat little boxes, and that the longer-term parts of the plan, in particular, are likely to change as a result. But, as George Box once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”; these particular models are immensely useful to me.

The research plan for this project required a different mapping approach. As indicated at the bottom left of the diagram, blue boxes represent various samples / sets of samples; black boxes represent various processes / analyses; and red boxes represent final datasets / results. (NB I used red and green for the arrows at the bottom just to make it clear which samples were being compared in each of the two analyses that involve those four samples – there’s no other significance to those colours). Again, the corresponding Aims and/or proposal page numbers are listed in each box.

As my colleagues emerge from their offices, blinking into the light after the CIHR deadline, and become available for project planning meetings, I’ll soon find out if anyone else agrees… I’ve had really good feedback from a few people on the usefulness of my tracking spreadsheets and team meetings, but it’s been unexpectedly tough to get some other people to update their parts of the spreadsheet and to come to the meetings on a regular basis.

Ah well… the reviews for one of these grants included the phrase “All members of the team are supremely qualified to conduct the research. […] If this team cannot pull off this study, no one in Canada can.” As part of said team – even a backroom, largely invisible part – I feel inspired to rise to that challenge!

Now, pass me my carrot TimBits and stick (TBD – I’m not good with sticks)…

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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17 Responses to Project management: go with the flow

  1. Mermaid says:

    Awesome – SO impressed!!!

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks mate!

    Is it weird to find this really fun?

    BTW, I just sent the original, full version of one of the flowcharts to one of the MDs involved in the study so we can start working on the ethics proposal. I had a minor panic attack at the thought that I might have sent him the version full of the word “REDACTED”, which I’d carelessly copied into the same folder… that would have been less impressive… but luckily I sent him the proper version, with all the sample and process descriptions intact!

  3. chall says:

    Lovely! It looks awesome and very easy to interpret. Bet it took much longer to do than ppl would realise?! I have similar ones, although not as complicated, for some of the assays we need to track and keep record of all the middle-tests with numbers needed for the end analysis… lots and lots of numbers… gah!!

    (I’m also in love with Medelian genetics, and got sad once I realised it wasn’t all green and yellow peas in the world 😉 )

  4. chall says:

    btw, been meaning to ask – did you remove your blog roll sans OT? I can’t see that now…

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      OH! I hadn’t spotted that. Any idea when it went missing? I didn’t change anything, and according to the Widgets section in the back end, it should still be there (along with my tag cloud). They may have fallen victim to the recent server migration and/or WordPress version update. I’ll ask the boss…

      • chall says:

        not sure, not for the last week at least…. sorry, haven’t been paying that much attention to dates (got sort of surprised that March came around now)

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    The first one took a full afternoon to sketch out on paper, and then an hour or so to build in PowerPoint. The second one’s been more of a half-hour-here-and-there-between-grants kinda thing, but probably took roughly the same amount of time, maybe a little less. It’s a good return on investment, though, in my opinion!

  6. ecogeofemme says:

    I love these project management posts. I like hearing other people’s thoughts about this kind of stuff, and you have some good thoughts!

    I’ve given up on this kind of planning and organization (not that I ever did anything this thorough and formal) because I get so frustrated when it doesn’t work out according to the plan. It’s also unbearably frustrating when other people don’t sign on to a plan that involves them.

    P.S. I just noticed I have a post in BRC. Thanks!

  7. steffi suhr says:

    …it’s been unexpectedly tough to get some other people to update their parts of the spreadsheet and to come to the meetings on a regular basis.

    It’s also unbearably frustrating when other people don’t sign on to a plan that involves them.

    Yes. That. If anyone involved in project management and/or controlling comes up with a solution to that, I bloody well hope they will share the secret.

    “Science project management: we’re only trying to help…”

  8. ricardipus says:

    Cath – that is very impressive.

    However – POWERPOINT? EXCEL? Project management and flowcharting should be done in MS Project, an evil piece of software that I never use. Insta-Gantt charts. Milestones. Checkpoints. On-ramps. Off-ramps. Customized task lists. Colour coding. Little flaggy things to flag things.

    Seriously, I do it the same way you do, but since you do a lot of this, you might want to take a look at Project or something similar that is specifically designed for streamlining the flowcharting and Gantt-charting processes. Could save you a lot of time once you escape the inevitable initial learning curve.

    Disclaimer: Project is evil. Did I mention that already?

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Eco and Steffi: frustrating just about sums it up some days!

    Steffi, I like your motto! I might put it up above my desk.

    Some observations:

    1) In order to do this job, you have to be a detail-oriented control freak.
    2) If you are a detail-oriented control freak, this job will drive you nuts.
    3) The only way to rectify point 2 is if the PIs and other bigwigs report to the project manager, rather than vice versa
    4) Dream on 🙂

    Ricardipus, LOL! I’ve had a couple of project management software spammers try to comment on this post, but you’re definitely not one of them – or, if you are, you need to work on your sales technique.

    I’ve no doubt that you’re correct about needing more specialised software, but the spammers prove that there’s more to the field than Microsoft. (Anyway, my boss is such a Mac guy that he probably wouldn’t let me install Project just in principal…) I also remember reading a post at one point about web-based project management tools. I should ask Mermaid what her team uses!

    (p.s. I do my Gantt charts in Excel, too – tasks down the side, time slots across the top, fill in the relevant cells using the paint tool. So sue me 🙂 )

  10. ricardipus says:

    Yeah, me too, when I have to do Gantt charts. I hates ’em, hatesssssssssssssssssss ’em my precioussssssss.

    You could, of course, point out to your boss that there have been Mac versions of the key Microsoft applications since… um, let me think now… forever. One might argue that in the early days the Mac versions worked better than the Windows ones, but I’m so bored of the Mac vs. PC debate that I won’t bother. Nikon vs. Canon, anyone?

    Project and suchlike are applications that fall into the “I bet this would really, really help if I gave it a chance, but I can’t be arsed to put the effort in and gosh it looks expensive doesn’t it?” category of my brain.

    P.S. That alleged Vancouver windstorm yesterday, despite canceling a Sarah McLachlan concert in Kelowna, actually helped by blowing my plane back to Toronto ahead of schedule.

  11. bean-mom says:

    Very impressive-looking charts, Cath. I can see how the first would take a whole day of sketching!

    “it’s been unexpectedly tough to get some other people to update their parts of the spreadsheet and to come to the meetings on a regular basis.”

    –ah, well, you know that saying about herding cats and scientists?

    Good luck, and congrats on finishing the last round of grants!

  12. Bob O'H says:

    Curiously, whilst everyone acknowledges that George Box said “all models are wrong, but some are useful”, nobody knows when or where he said it.

    I’m amazed you’re spending so much time working on REDACTED. I can’t imagine how you’ll get it published, though.

  13. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    The windstorm was nothing but hot air. (I’m just annoyed because I decided not to bike to work based on predictions of doom, gloom, death, destruction, and 150 km/h gusts, and then it was barely more than breezy. However, the next day, I cycled to work but then had to leave the bike here and bus home because of an unforecast thunder and hailstorm. Blegh).

    Bean-mom, based on actual experience of actually herding actual cats: the cats are much easier to deal with!

    Bob, yeah, I couldn’t find a definitive quotation either. Oh well: all quotes are inaccurate, but some are relevant.

    The best part about working on REDACTED is REDACTED. It’s awesome because REDACTED. Oh, and we’ll submit to the REDACTED Journal of REDACTED – they’re used to that kind of thing.

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