3 budget monitoring strategies to help predict the unpredictableBudget monitoring for innovation projects

As a junior technical project manager, my job is to support senior project managers by monitoring and controlling longer-term projects with large teams. I also manage shorter-term projects with smaller teams. During my first year at StarFish Medical, I have worked on over ten projects with a wide variety of technical focuses and team compositions. I collect and maintain data on project budgets, schedules and tasks in order to help our teams predict and respond to challenges.

One key aspect of successful project management is sticking to the budget. On the surface, the goal to monitor, predict and control the budget can seem incompatible with the open-ended nature of a difficult, novel technical undertaking. How do you measure and predict the process of trying to figure out and develop a unique product for the first time? This can feel like an impossible goal.

However, if the project starts with a good plan, is actively monitored, and you take action when there are warning signs, then it is very realistic to expect to complete the project on budget. Unexpected challenges will arise no matter what, but the proportion that can be controlled is much higher than it may seem. One of the most important project management responsibilities is to stay aware of the remaining budget available, the tasks that are left to be done with that budget, the actions required to get to done, and the budget that it will take to get there. Figuring out this last item can be tough when there are a lot of different ways the project can go. The following strategies are the most helpful ways I have learned to gather this information.

Here are three budget monitoring strategies I use:

  1. Make the budget hours allotted for each task visible to team members as hours accrue. This means that everyone on the team, including the project manager, can see how much time is left to complete their own work.
  2. Ask team members to report on remaining work in different ways. Sometimes rephrasing a question can bring out a different answer. For example, I’ve been asked to estimate both percent complete, and remaining hours left on a task. When I realize my answers are different, it can point to steps that I’ve forgotten about.
  3. Ask “What are the next steps?” Breaking a big task down into smaller chunks makes it easier to figure out how long it might take to finish. For example, instead of “Write report”, split it into first draft, circulation for feedback, edits, and time for presentation with discussion and questions. Then you can budget time for each individual step instead of trying to come up with a number for the whole thing.

According to the Project Management Institute, a project is defined as “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.” Although every project is unique, i.e. something that’s never been done before, the amount of unknowns is particularly high in the innovative field of medical device product development. When a new project begins, we often have a technical problem that we don’t know how to solve yet, never mind having an idea of what the final form will be.

The most important thing that I have learned about budget monitoring is that the purpose isn’t to carry out the exact plan you started with by spending time and resources in the way you thought you would. Instead, it is to have visibility on exactly how much of the resources you have used, and how much are left, in order to make informed decisions about how to make the most efficient use of what you have.

Fritha Munday is a junior technical project manager at StarFish Medical.  This is her first blog for StarFish.  She applies her suggestions daily on a variety of projects large and small.  For which StarFish engineers and clients are very grateful.


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