Can you fix a broken Gantt chart?

Workable [Photo by Tseen Khoo]
Your project’s been funded? It’s going ahead? Congratulations!

You must have written a feasible and convincing application. The timeline you put together must have looked do-able, appropriate and very neat. It looks like it’ll be plain sailing.

Six months later…


A key team member’s moved to Fiji in a huff, and taken his expertise with him? The prof you’re planning to work with in the UK has taken her long service leave? You can’t find a research assistant who’ll stay longer than a month? And, worst of all, your project data isn’t saying what you thought it would?

While very few research projects go exactly as planned, the good news is that they usually still result in good outcomes and worthwhile advancement in the field of research.

When you feel like your project’s going off the rails, though, this can be small comfort.

Here are a few strategies that may help get things back on track:

1. Staffing issues

The best way to avoid project staffing issues is to be proactive about flagging the right research assistants (RAs), postdocs, or international experts BEFORE you even get the grant.

Immediately on scoring the grant, touch base with all involved and start confirming the nitty-gritty dates of the research schedule or fieldwork. This gives you time to formulate a Plan B if people drop out, which can often happen despite repeated confirmation.

Fixing staff issues can delay projects significantly, and dragging things out if they’re not working well can be extremely counter-productive.

  • AWOL RAs and postdocs – Spread the word through your trusted professional networks straight away, flagging job specs and timelines. Start thinking about what you may need to change time- and task-wise if the RA or postdoc doesn’t come on board for another month (or similar).
  • Chief Investigators leaving – If one of your research team moves overseas for another job and this makes them ineligible for your grant, try to keep them on in another capacity (e.g. for an Australian Research Council grant, this would mean turning them into a Partner Investigator). That way, you still have their expertise and they are still involved with an internationally funded project.
  • Team bunfight – Academics will be academics, and falling out during a funded project happens. Quite a lot. If things become untenable, the best thing you can hope for is that one of the warring parties will go off in a huff. If the project remains feasible with one person down, you let the funding body know (and detail all the great stuff that’s already underway and how you might have to adjust [but not diminish] the project). Often, this will be acceptable; check the funding body’s guidelines first, though!

2a. You’ve spent too much money!

This can happen if your budget wasn’t solidly blocked out from the start, or if unexpected research challenges rear their ugly heads (e.g. the high-use consumables you’d budgeted for suddenly double in price). When this happens, there are a few things that may help:

  • Can you trim the project without compromising the integrity of its outcomes? You might be able to steal from the bucket that was dedicated to project workshops or conferences and put the money into core research work. Once the exciting research work has been done, it’s much easier to…
  • Approach your school or faculty for a contribution. When you have research findings to disseminate and it’s the time when your institution’s name will be bandied about most effectively in relation to the work, it’s a smart chance for them to support you.

2b. You’ve spent too little money!

Unless you’re not actually getting the work done, this is rarely an issue that crops up! If you’re one of those rare research creatures who budgeted and spent perfectly, and have project ‘savings’, the best way to approach it is to think of what would make the biggest positive difference for the work:

  • Another batch of data? Bring in a big-name collaborator and churn out some great project publications? Buy RA time so that you’re freed up to write more, or data analysis can be expedited?
  • Many successful researchers work with a view that a current grant lays the groundwork for a future one (succinctly captured by this PhD Comics strip). If you’re faced with the luxury of extra funding, use it in the service of some basic research development for the Next Project (which would usually be connected to a current one so not really ‘out of bounds’ in terms of what the money should be spent on…).

3. Too much time taken.

Delays in data collection or analysis will push into all other areas of the project, as will issues with staffing or travel. Get the team together and nut out exactly what things can still be done. Does it compromise what you said you’d deliver? Will you still meet your project milestones?

For example, unavoidable delays include things like volcanic ash-clouds that prevent all air travel across Western Europe for a few weeks. That’s obviously not something you can predict or account for – can you put the trip off, is the case-study still feasible, is the collaborator still available?

If not, and the reason is a valid delay (not just bad planning from the start) it’s a good idea to let the funding body know. You would need to flag what the adjusted timeline or scope will be, and it often helps to talk about the things that the project has already achieved or is right on the cusp of achieving. You’re basically letting them know that things haven’t gone 100% to plan, but that they’ll still get excellent outcomes and value from funding your work.

This entry is mostly concerned with things that happen to your neat little Gantt chart after funding has been awarded. It could help when events beyond your control bump or stall your project timeline. It presumes a timeline that was created on a feasible basis in the first place.

I’m saying all this because, sometimes, you have to acknowledge that you can’t save the project. The data’s not quite what you thought it might be, the team implodes completely, or the industry partner rides off into the sunset. This can happen. You can’t plan for it.

It’ll break your Gantt. But you can recover.


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