A manager's guide to effect concurrent project management


Project Management in Action

Hans J. Thamhain


Today, an essential part of corporate strength is the ability to react to changing market needs rapidly, predictably, and responsively. Time-to-market has become a critical measure of business performance. Whether a company's business is project-, product-, or service-oriented, new markets are constantly evolving and transforming as the result of new technologies, regulations, global alliances, and changing customer needs. Product life cycles are shrinking in virtually all areas. We also see traditional projects, ranging from construction to aerospace and oil exploration, becoming more complex, yet with increasing demands for accelerated deliveries and lower cost. All of these factors put great pressure on product and project managers, from R&D to manufacturing, for bringing new products and projects to market faster, without compromising on product quality, features, or cost efficiency.

This managerial guideline has been developed from a field study paper by Terrance Skelton and Hans Thamhain in “Concurrent Project Management:ATool for TechnologyTransfer R&D-to-Market,” Project Management Journal, vol. 24, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 41-47.


Hans J. Thamhain specializes in technical project management and is currently on the management faculty of Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. He has had hands-on experience as R&D ande ngineering manager in high-tech specialties with General Electric, GTE, and Westinghouse. One of the most respected authors in his field, Dr. Thamhain has written numerous research articles and five professional reference books in project and engineering management. He is a member of the PMI Publications Board.


Concurrent project management (or concurrent engineering as it is known in technology-oriented environments) is an evolution of the traditional Phased Project Planning concept and the more recent Stage-Gate Process. It developed into a significant management technique for orchestrating the multifunctional processes of today's complex projects. Cross-functional cooperation and effective teamwork -are some of the crucial ingredients for making these processes work. People from many departments must collaborate over the product life cycle—from idea generation to delivery and service—to ensure that it reflects customer needs and desires. All parties work together from the outset to anticipate challenges and bottlenecks and to eliminate them early on. In the process they avoid organizational interface and project integration problems that cause schedule delays, costly rework, and often problems in manufacturing, installation and service. Because of these more effective organizational processes, concurrent project management offers more than just rapid implementation. As summarized in Table 1, it results in more favorable project cost, quality, flexibility and creativity. It also helps to deal more effectively with project risk, conflict and barriers to innovation.

Many of these benefits result as a byproduct to the concurrent management process. Concurrent engineering builds cross-functional linkages. It fosters a work environment of strong interfunc-tional collaboration and involvement, lowering traditional organizational barriers, and making the project organization more transparent. These in turn are favorable conditions for integrated project planning, stage-gate processes, and design/build team implementations.

Yet, despite its potential benefits and publicized success stories, few companies go into a major business process redesign lightly. Many managers are skeptical. Most vocal are those who have reeingineered their business with disappointing results. Often these challenges originate with the organizational complexities and countervailing forces associated with the concurrent process. The forces that push for greater product sophistication, quality, and global competitiveness are often opposite to the forces for lower cost, faster time-to-market, and better market predictability. However, managers operating in these accelerated markets often have no choice. They must respond to these competing forces. Concurrent project management offers one additional tool to the sophisticated manager for effectively utilizing resources and favorably positioning the company in today's fiercely competitive markets.


How can we create a work environment for effective technology transfer? Field research on best-in-class practices as well as studies on the management process itself suggest that a company's ability to transfer technology effectively involves three primary issues: (1) multifunctional planning, (2) organizational structure, and (3) managerial style, All three issues are linked together and influenced by the specific project tasks to be performed and the surrounding work environment conducive to multifunctional teamwork. Certain conditions appear particularly important for creating an ambiance for effective technology transfer (see Dec. 1993 PMJ, Table 2, pp. 41-48).

Table 1. Potential Advantages of Using Concurrent Project Management

Speed: More rapid project execution, shorter development or implementation time

Cost: Lower project cost

Market response: Faster reaction time and responsiveness to changing markets and customer requirements

Predictability: Higher accuracy of projects plans, their schedules and budgets

Quality: Higher overall quality of end product through effective technology transfer

Risk: Lower implementation risks

Complexity: Ability to execute higher levels of system/project complexity

Innovation: Higher level of product and process innovation

Customer satisfaction: Can be increased for user-focused developments

Concurrent Project Management Defined

Concurrent project management is simply the effective integration of all functions and processes that are needed during the implementation of a project plan. It often focuses on the objective of transferring technology to market faster and more predictably. Its success relies on the organizational ability to execute multidisciplinary tasks in parallel, to build multifunctional work teams, and to transfer work-in-progress incrementally. The process can be applied to any project-oriented effort, such as new product or service development, process improvement, and organizational development. Concurrent engineering, design/build teams, accelerated developments, fast-tracking, and rapid prototyping, while conceptually somewhat different, all have very similar objectives and rely on very similar organizational and managerial processes.

More than any other variable, the managerial style of the project leaders and their superiors influences success or failure of the concurrent project management process. Leadership style affects the way people in the organization behave. It affects their attitudes, work habits, motivational patterns, communication processes, cross-functional cooperation, risk-taking, innovation and conflict. These are the ingredients that shape the work process and structure, and ultimately influence organizational performance. Research also suggests that all of these issues are intensely linked and must be concurrently dealt with, across functional lines, for effective technology transfer through the organization. Concurrent project management offers an effective process model. The suggestions in this section focus on the lessons learned from best-in-class management practices. They summarize the criteria that seem to be important for effectively applying concurrent project management techniques, and ultimately transferring technology successfully from R&D to the market.

Companies that are now using concurrent project management are able to transfer technology to their markets and customers more rapidly and predictably.

Concurrent project management requires leadership and special skills in planning, organizing and communicating.

1. Plan the project in detail. Effective multifunctional planning of the project through all its phases is critical to the successful transfer of technology. It helps to identify and build critical communication linkages and information transfer points. Effective project planning involves the definition of the work to be performed, its resources, timing, and responsibilities for all functional support groups, including subcontractors and suppliers of components critical to the project.

2. Break the project into “natural” phases and subsystems. For example, for a product development, one common phase breakdown is R&D, engineering design, prototyping, test and integration, manufacturing set-up, volume production, and marketing. Such a breakdown resolves the complexity of the project and provides a framework for stage-gate processes, phase reviews and the development of cross-functional communication links and detailed interface protocols.

3. Communicate a clear business mission. As an important precondition for cross-functional cooperation, people must share a strategic vision across organizational lines. Management must clearly define the project's purpose, its business mission and objectives, and communicate these with clarity, continuity and consistency to all people in the project organization.

4. Ensure intra-project involvement. Interfacing project teams, such as engineering and manufacturing, must work together, not only during the task transfer, but during the total life of the project to ensure effective plan integration. This is enhanced by clearly defining the results/deliverables for each interface point, agreed upon by both parties. In addition, a simple sign-off procedure, which defines who has to sign off on what items, is useful for establishing clear checkpoints for completion. It also enhances involvement and cooperation of the interfacing team members.

5. Provide technical expertise. The project team, collectively, must have the know-how to solve problems and produce the agreed-on results. They must understand the technologies and underlying concepts, theories, and principles, the design methods and techniques. In addition, technical expertise includes an understanding of the applications, the marketing, and the business environment. It is necessary not only for proper analytical and development work, but equally important for evaluating technical solutions and tradeoffs, communicating effectively within the engineering team, assessing risks, and participating in the search for integrated solutions.

6. Foster a professionally stimulating work environment. The project leaders should try to accommodate the professional interests and desires of their personnel. Professionally stimulating and interesting work leads to increased project involvement, better communications, lower conflict, and stronger commitment.

7. Ensure effective cross-functional communication. It is the responsibility of the project manager to provide the appropriate communication tools, techniques, and systems. These tools include the status meeting, reviews, schedules, and reporting systems, but also the objective statements, specifications, list of deliverables, the signoff procedure and critical path analysis. Senior management must provide the basic organizational building blocks and conditions conducive for effective cross-functional linkages. Channels must be open across functional lines and to upper management so that emerging information can be integrated and validated quickly and meaningfully. A good collegial atmosphere and team spirit, low levels of personal conflict and confusion, shared risks and a sense of professional accomplishment, recognition, visibility, and senior management involvement can create the organizational ambiance in which effective communications flourish. Such an environment is also critically important for people to buy-into their roles as integrated project team members. Joint planning of products, projects, and activities; joint reviews and evaluations of work performance; process-action teams; and design/build techniques can be helpful management tools for making the organization more transparent across departmental lines.

Managers must also be willing to share power, delegate more while giving up traditional authority and control.

8. Identify “gatekeepers.” As an important communication node within functional subgroups, gatekeepers communicate significantly more frequently and more effectively than the average team member internally and especially externally with other functional support groups. The role of the communications gatekeeper is to create a “technology knowledge transfer highway” and to connect his or her organization with other support functions associated with the transfer process. Gatekeepers are usually identifiable by their excellent networking skills and by their trust in and respect for other team members.

9. Provide recognition and visibility. Desired behavior should be reinforced frequently, throughout the organization. Recognition, especially for visible and important project activities, is one of the strongest methods of influence that managers have to motivate and to reinforce effective cross-functional team performance.

10. Ensure leadership. Management can influence the climate of the work environment by their own actions. Concern for the welfare of their people, stability, and resource commitments, together with their own involvement, can stimulate personal enthusiasm for participation and cooperation. It also focuses the team toward desired results.


With increasing pressure to become more responsive to changing market needs, the new breed of manager focuses on the effective management of organizational interfaces, and tries to improve communications among all participating functions. Especially important is proper multifunctional involvement during the idea generation and product/project definition phase.

Modern phase management and stage-gate processes provide project managers with the tools for organizing and developing the proper cross-functional communications and control channels. These channels are in part created via regularly scheduled project reviews, design reviews, stage-gate reviews, jointly conducted product strategy reassessments, and written reports. Departing from traditional product and project management approaches, where the execution of each development phase is assigned to a specific function with considerable autonomy, concurrent project management approaches are based on simultaneous involvement of several functions with joint responsibilities for the development. The management of these cross-functional teams relies largely on self-direction, control and commitment by the team members to the mutually agreed-on project plan. While the project team concentrates on the product/project development, the project leader, together with senior management, integrates the evolving technical, marketing, and business information and ensures that all team members benefit from the most relevant, up-to-date information, including the project status, market and customer requirements, technologies, competitors, regulations, and business strategy.

The companies that are now using concurrent project management are able to transfer technology to their markets and customers more rapidly and predictably. They can often respond to specialized customer requirements faster, introduce more new products, upgrade current products, and service niche markets. Concurrent project management requires leadership and special skills in planning, organizing and communicating. Above all, the manager must be a social architect, organizing and unifying the multifunctional project team and encouraging innovative behavior, drive, and cooperation. Managers must also be willing to share power, delegate more while giving up traditional authority and control. They must share risks and foster a work environment that is professionally stimulating and conducive to the motivational needs of their people.


For additional reading on this subject, see especially references 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 15, 16, 18 as listed in the original article that appeared in the December 1993 PMJ, pp. 41-48, plus Cooper, Robert G., 1994, Third Generation New Product Processes, Journal of Product Innovation Management, vol. 11, no. 1 (January). ❑

PMNETwork • November 1994



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