Project Management Institute

A Seat in the C-Suite

Louise Knabe, Chief Project Officer, Ariadne Labs, Boston, Massachusetts, USA



Louise Knabe, chief project officer, Ariadne Labs, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

It seems logical for a scientific organization to put scientists in charge of projects. That was the norm at Ariadne Labs, part of Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, when it was formed five years ago. The nonprofit develops simple healthcare solutions for critical moments in people's lives: childbirth, surgery and serious illness.

But while ultimately these solutions might be simpler than other costly medical interventions, “they're not that simple to develop or manage,” says Louise Knabe. That's why Ariadne has placed a growing emphasis on project management.

Before joining Ariadne, Ms. Knabe spent two decades as a project manager in the software and consumer goods industries. Her team at Ariadne Labs manages 15 to 20 projects with budgets ranging from US$200,000 to US$20 million.

When I started here in 2013, project managers worked for our scientific leaders on each project. In 2015, we reorganized to change that relationship. Now they're partners: All our projects are co-led by a scientific leader and a project manager. And we mirrored that at the executive level. I used to work for the chief medical officer, but now I'm his partner.

Why did Ariadne decide to elevate its project managers?

We're a scientific organization, and scientists focus on getting the science right. We wanted to provide additional support in areas such as scope, budget and people management to ensure the success of our research. Our largest initiative, the BetterBirth Program, has consistently demonstrated the value of project management. Watching how project management helped us succeed turned our executive director, and Ariadne Labs in general, into project management believers. BetterBirth, which will end in 2017, has been a transformative part of that journey.

Watching how project management helped us succeed turned our executive director, and Ariadne Labs in general, into project management believers.

What is BetterBirth, and why did it require such rigorous project management?

It's a program designed to test the implementation of the World Health Organization's Safe Childbirth Checklist at healthcare facilities. About 300,000 women each year die in childbirth, and the world has the knowledge to change those outcomes. We worked with an implementation partner, Population Services International (PSI), to conduct a randomized control trial with 140,000-plus deliveries at 120 community healthcare facilities in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India.

During these trials, we have to ensure the birth attendants use the checklist the same way every single time. It's a massive and incredibly complex public health project. Success requires project management on steroids. So we set up the project management infrastructure to deliver the work.

What did that infrastructure entail?

It started with getting clarity around roles: What is PSI doing, and what is Ariadne doing? We made sure we had the right teams in place in both Boston and India. Then we set up our communications and issue-resolution systems. Because we're working across cultures, time zones and organizations, there are challenges even with simple communication. So each member of our Boston team has a partner in India. Whenever they run into a problem, the first thing they do is contact their partner. If they can't resolve it, they bring it to their team leader during the weekly team meeting. And if they still can't resolve it, the project sponsors address it in the weekly leadership meeting.

How does being part of the executive team make a difference?

As a member of the Ariadne Labs executive team, I can ensure that the organization is positioned to deliver high-quality work with excellence—on time, on budget and on scope. It's also really important for our project managers from a morale perspective. They see the value the organization places on project management. They see that if they need something, there's a decision maker who can help make that happen. And as a member of the executive team, I'm also demonstrating that there is a career path for our project professionals.

How do you demonstrate the value of project management?

For me, the real proof is customer satisfaction. We have two key stakeholders: our funders, like the Gates Foundation, and the people whose lives we impact. On the funding side, we have multiple funders that have given us additional support for our projects. On the care side, birth attendants say they are more confident they are providing excellent care. The model of joint leadership between project managers and scientific leaders makes those results possible. PM


Small Talk

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

Interpersonal skills. Project managers must be flexible so they can work with different people. They have to be chameleons: Their color changes, but who they are shouldn't change.

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?

I asked my boss to write me a graduate school recommendation letter, and she said, “Under one condition: You find the best school in the country in your field, and you apply to it.” As a result, I ended up going to Stanford University to study engineering. My takeaway: You don't know what you can do until you try.

What's a book that has special meaning for you?

First, Break All the Rules. It says that if you can figure out how to play to people's strengths, great things will happen. That's what project management is all about.

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