Project Management Institute

A Cure for Cancer Projects

Conquering the Disease will Require Interdisciplinary Project Management

By Andrew Ritcheson, PMP


We now live in the Cancer Moonshot era. This audacious global initiative, launched by the U.S. government this year, is a battle cry to win the war on cancer, allowing it to be managed like any other disease. Specifically, the US$1 billion program aims to make a decade of advances in just five years.

I believe the analogy to sending a man to the moon is not overstated. Part of the challenge is that no individual sector can cure cancer. Instead, solutions will be found where biomedical research, data science, IT and project management all intersect. Project managers, however, are generally unaccustomed to managing across these disciplines. Instead, they often assign team members to work within their area of expertise and distill complex requirements into work streams that separate tasks, deliverables and labor.

To achieve the Cancer Moonshot, we will need to change how we manage cancer research projects. The future of research will require interdisciplinary project management (IPM). IPM can better manage the traffic at the intersection of disciplines, improving how teams organize, communicate and collaborate to achieve cancer breakthroughs.

One recent program I am familiar with sought to connect cancer research teams and use shared infrastructure and software to promote data collection, analysis and sharing. However, work was conducted in managerial and functional isolation, rather than with IPM, and there was little effort to understand the needs of the broader cancer community. The functionally aligned program leadership provided unrealistic timelines and schedules, which impacted cost, risk and resource management. The software and infrastructure developed was highly unstable, and most of the cancer centers were unable or unwilling to use the tools.

The program was terminated. Although a few of the tools have survived, mostly what remains is a lesson in the perils of functional management and a missed opportunity for IPM.

The solution is not for organizations to simply will IPM into existence or rename their existing approaches. At initiation, team members usually switch between asserting the primacy of their own field and being passive when they feel inexpert, waiting for their turn to speak. Instead, the project team has to serve as the engine for an interdisciplinary approach. That requires the project manager's leadership. Since not all team members will feel comfortable working across disciplines, project managers must take the time to encourage and coach them.

Since not all team members will feel comfortable working across disciplines, project managers must take the time to encourage and coach them.

A key objective of IPM is to move team members toward a constructive middle space where their participation is unanchored from these extreme positions. Here, the team engages in interdisciplinary dialogue and co-creation, not only utilizing their own expertise, but looking beyond it and easily switching back and forth from expert to novice and teacher to learner.

As the team continues to mature, its members begin to self-initiate and self-help in less hierarchical and project manager-dependent ways. The project manager continues to shape the behaviors of the group, balancing the competing needs of team members in different fields, while structuring an environment where trust, shared objectives, structure and guidance are clearly articulated and consistently maintained. The goal is to create an expert team, rather than simply a team of experts.

This interdisciplinary approach requires project managers to shift away from dogged alignment with rigid and specialty-driven functional structures and instead to concentrate on better managing the spaces in between professions. But the reward is well worth it: the ability to put a cure for cancer within closer reach. PM


Andrew Ritcheson, PMP, is a program manager and National Institutes of Health practice director at the consulting firm Attain in McLean, Virginia, USA.

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