Good Management Practice: Facilitating the Transition from Operations to Project Management: How to Mentor a New Project Manager

Martin Robinson headshot

Martin Robinson, PhD, principal director, IAOCR.

A common career change for many people working in clinical research is to move from “operations” into “project management.” For some, this transition may be reasonably gradual; a person may over time take on responsibilities such as managing a work area or part of a budget. For others, the move into project management may be more sudden— brought about by a promotion or when moving to another organization.

Making this transition can sometimes seem overwhelming, as it is often a stressful experience; however, one of the key roles of a manager is to help his or her staff make the transition smoothly from an operations role to project management.

It’s a New Job!

Being a project manager is not like being a “super” clinical research associate (CRA) or an “uber” data manager, where someone is doing operational tasks to a more advanced level. It is a different job. True, there are some transferable skills, but also plenty of new ones to learn.

A good source of the requirements of the role should be found in the job description of a project manager. A more useful document still is a project management competency framework. Competency frameworks are documents that map competencies to roles or job descriptions. They are part of a range of standards that can be used to help organizations and individuals to assess and manage individual and collective work performance.1,2

Compare the skills required in the operations role with those required for project management. Make a list of the gaps, and then work with the individual to create an action plan to fill the gaps by acquiring the relevant competencies.

Encourage Thinking Big

As well as acquiring new skills, another key change that your new project manager will need to make is in his or her mind-set. Project management requires a much more strategic approach than operations, and is conducted on a much grander scale; large multinational projects may be complex and can last several years.

Help your new project managers by addressing the “fit” of their projects into the wider business context, such as the overall strategy for the development of new medical treatments, and the contributions of successfully completed projects to the (business) strategy of the organization. Also discuss what other projects are being conducted, and where the project managers’ projects fit in with organizational priorities.

A new project manager’s overall responsibility for a budget will probably be on a much grander scale than he or she will have been used to previ­ously. The stakeholders—the people with a vested interest in the project—will probably be a diverse group. Some of them may hold positions of relatively high seniority. Project managers lead multidis­ciplinary project teams, and many projects are international (sometimes global) in scope, so they will need to consider cultural and logistical issues.

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

Because your new project manager is taking on a new role, having to use new skills and thinking a lot more strategically, he or she will be moving into unfamiliar territory. This transition will have to occur quickly, as there is the inevitable pressure to get projects completed on schedule.

At the start of their careers, project managers may frequently feel very uncomfortable. You can help them by acting as a guide and mentor. Help them move out of their comfort zone by explaining that project managers often have to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity—it’s part of the role. It may feel very awkward, but they will be undoubtedly gaining new skills and knowledge. Explain that, with time, they will gain in confidence and the feelings of discomfort will diminish (but never vanish!).

There are plenty of sayings about project man­agement you can share. One of them is, “The most successful project managers have perfected the skill of getting comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

The French historian and philosopher Voltaire is credited with the quotation “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In operations—whether in data management, regulatory affairs, or working as a CRA or other related job roles—there is a culture of doing everything to perfection. There is a good reason for this; clinical research is a highly regulated environment, and the rights, safety, and welfare of patients are paramount. Project management is a more imprecise environment.

Naturally, a project manager will attempt to make his or her estimates of timelines, budgets, and resources as accurate as possible. However, there are usually several areas of uncertainty. After all, we are conducting research which, by its nature, is designed to answer a question for which we don’t yet have the answer. There is bound to be an element of guesswork supported by forecasts based on any intelligence that we may have gathered.

Help your new project managers to decide when precision is required and when it is not. Help them see that it is better to create a plan based on some guesswork than to get delayed striving for perfection in endless reiterations of something that will probably not turn out to be realistic anyway.

Helping others develop is an essential part of being a manager. One of the most challenging tran­sitions is moving into project management, and you can add great value as a manager by helping people who report to you to make this change.


  1. Robinson M. Summer 2014. Standard of Care. Eur Pharm Cont.
  2. Schueler P, Buckley BM (eds). Re-Engineering Clinical Trials. 2015. Academic Press (Elsevier). Pages 319–28. ISBN 978-0- 12-420246-7.

Martin Robinson, PhD, ( is principal director of IAOCR.

[DOI: 10.14524/CR-16-4019]