Comparing project management practices in small versus large companies


This session will compare the project management practices of a small versus a large company taking as an example the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. Attendees will be able to identify best practices in project management that apply to both company cultures as well as contrast practices that apply to small or large company cultures.

Specifically, we will focus on how roles and responsibilities are assigned, how time is prioritized, how team development issues are resolved, and describe the multiple relationships project managers have with their team members. We will then discuss how results are achieved, and the process of planning a project and how timelines are developed. This will lead us to how project management and daily operations are approached. We will discuss whether one person makes a difference and how to ensure that project management practices mature in both types of organizations. We will conclude by discussing the culture in place at a small biotechnology company and compare it with the culture in place at a large pharmaceutical one.


It is no secret that there are differences in how small and large companies manage their projects. As small companies tend to be data driven with limited budgets and a risk adverse attitude, large companies are struggling to define roles and responsibilities and getting buy in from functional managers. These two environments present differences in managing how a product is developed. In this session, attendees will hear both small and large company perspectives and identify project management strategies that apply to both. We will be using examples from the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries where these differences are even more pronounced. This session will provide attendees with the opportunity to assess how the project manager functions in each of these environments, identify whether the small company focus differs from the big company one, and how resource management is affected.

What key areas should you consider?


Every company likes to advertise a culture that is family-oriented “where everyone knows your name”. In a small company, this may be feasible. Due to the smaller size where employees are generally collocated, one has the ability to go directly to team members or to the VPs or President or even to the CEO as there are fewer layers and less bureaucracy to encounter and struggle through compared to a larger organization. In a small biotech company, for example, drug supply for a particular clinical site was not delivered on time due to shipment issues where the courier met unexpected weather conditions that led to major delivery delays. Here, the project team was able to meet directly with pertinent senior managers to make a critical decision within 24 hours to ship new drug supply via a different route to prevent the postponement of patient enrollment for the clinical trial. At a larger company, this type of decision may be delayed for several weeks as these topics may not be discussed until the monthly project meeting is held. That family-oriented type of culture is also the ideal for a large company. The reality, however, is often very different. The Pharmaceutical industry, among others, is known for its silo mentality.

A typical example is the following three key departments who do need to work very closely to ensure the success of drug development projects: Regulatory, Commercial/Marketing, and Supply Chain. They need to work hand in hand and ensure that the project plans are well coordinated and monitored. Quality Assurance and Control often play a critical role in this approach to ensure that procedures are followed. What is the reality? Regulatory Affairs is often considered by the Commercial/Marketing group to be nothing more than a mail station; a mail station that is responsible for sending the drug development submission package to the right FDA entity. Regulatory Affairs should play a significant role in designing and implementing the global product development strategy. On a specific project, a project manager was able to save 4 months off the launch date by working closely with the Regulatory group where all parties influenced the decision to delay the submission of the 510k (medical device application for marketing approval) by one month to the FDA authorities so that it could be included under a new procedure and new yearly performance metric for review time.

Other large pharmaceutical companies have tried very hard to bring their marketing and R&D groups together. Wyeth is a good example as they integrated their commercial organization into everything the R&D group does, from the earliest parts of the drug discovery to the product launch. They even went to the extent of locating the commercial and R&D people in the same building. Genentech has a fully integrated team between commercial operations and clinical R&D. The same approach could be taken between Medical Affairs and Marketing.

In conclusion, do you truly have a family, team-oriented culture where people share a “do whatever it takes” attitude? Or is changing the culture of your large organization a project that never ends? In large companies, functional managers and executives often make the mistake of trying to change the culture. They try to convince people to change attitudes. They tell people that something has changed and that they need to act differently. Well, it does not work. We recommend that in order to change culture, you do not focus on culture but on changing people, incentives, structures, responsibilities and controls such as performance appraisals. By changing the elements of execution, you are changing culture.

Roles and Responsibilities

Changing culture is partially a result of changing roles and responsibilities. In some small organizations, the project leader and the project manager are one and the same person. Often, they have another role on the project core team, e.g. holding a functional role in addition to being the project leader or manager as wearing “multiple hats” is common in small organizations. In another small organization model, the project manager co-leads the project team with the technical lead where the project manager is focused on the success of the overall project whereas the technical lead is focused on the success of the product.

The project leader in a large organization is often a separate person. In both a small and large organization, the project leader has very specific attributes such as: someone capable of demonstrating and inspiring confidence; someone able to convince others and encourage them to go out on an educated limb; someone who has respect and credibility throughout the organization and is an effective communicator. That project leader takes calculated risks and makes informed decisions. Such a person learns from failure and makes effective use of alliances.

At a Project Management Institute (PMI®) Pharmaceutical LIG (Local Interest Group) meeting, a Genentech Project Management Director described the traits of a project leader versus a project manager as follows. A project leader should have technical excellence, be task-oriented, have the ability to formulate a vision for the team, and be strategic in scope (looking at the big picture and long term implications of decisions). A project manager should have process expertise, be a consensus builder, be skilled at conflict resolution, have excellent analytical skills, is an efficient meeting facilitator, is detail-oriented and strategic at the same time, and is a skilled communicator. As stated above, it is likely that these two roles, likely in a small company, are fulfilled by one and the same person therefore encompassing all these characteristics.

Priorities and their meaning

In a small company, priorities include preparing the meeting agendas early and documenting accurate meeting outcomes and action plans via meeting minutes immediately following meeting completion, then distributing to all project team members and stakeholders. Often, this can be challenging. The goal here really is to hold efficient meetings where the objectives of the agenda topics are met, and to ensure fast and consistent communication throughout the company.

Below is a template of such an agenda used at a small company showing that cross-functional project core team meetings are not simply held for functional updates. Instead, attention is first given to current issues that bring risk to project success. Then progress against the approved project plan is discussed, followed by action tracking and providing an outlook of upcoming activities in the next month. The project manager informs who is responsible for specific agenda topics, outlines how much time is generally allotted per agenda topic to allow sufficient meeting time to discuss all topics, and establishes clear expected outcomes to ensure team focuses on yielding that objective, e.g. proposing a solution or making a team decision.


A larger organization might have specific processes and people dedicated to these functions. However, you will often encounter meeting minutes captured by an administrative assistant that do not reflect what was discussed during the meeting because of that person's lack of technical (life sciences) understanding. The issue around priority in larger organizations is no longer at the task level, but at the portfolio level.

Priorities at a large company are often referring to project priorities. One of the most challenging issues associated with new product development involves the decision process to select the projects upon which to work and what priorities to assign each of them. We observe new product development programs that have too few, new product opportunities in development. Typically, this is the result of too few new product ideas being advanced to project status because they do not fit or satisfy some vague definition of “strategic fit” when the idea is screened. Another common cause for the shortage of good projects is that idea generators develop too few ideas because no one can figure out what the company needs to support the business strategy.

We occasionally observe companies with highly active new product function that produce new products at a feverish pace. Unfortunately, many of the products make little or no strategic contribution. The new products take the company into markets and products that are of no strategic interest to the company. In the end, these highly active new product development processes waste valuable resources and dilute the overall business thrust of the organization. We see these companies are going in the wrong direction, and doing it very fast.

An approach to screening and weighing new product opportunities is necessary so that each project is assigned a unique priority. The diagram below (Exhibit 1) describes such an approach. Step 1 is to develop a list of measurable selection criteria (as described on the left side of the diagram – please note that because of space restrictions the ones in the diagram are more categories as opposed to clearly measurable criteria). Step 2 is to assess each project against this list of criteria (projects are listed at the top of the diagram). The result of that assessment is a prioritized list of projects (what is called strategic priority in the diagram). Step 3 is applying your resource capacity to each project according to their priority (each color or horizontal bar in the diagram represents a different kind of resource). Project A gets all the resources it needs (as does Project B and C). Project D, as you can see in the diagram, will not be implemented unless it addresses one resource bottleneck (the yellow category or third horizontal line from the top). Project E itself has two resource bottlenecks to be resolved to have a chance at being implemented. At a large company, priorities are referring to project priorities. And the result is more efficient resource management.


Exhibit 1

Managing Relationships

Nothing can be accomplished without managing relationships whether we are talking about priorities or deciding on roles and responsibilities. A small company often has an open-door policy that encourages direct conversations between and amongst team members and managers when needed. Ad-hoc meetings are scheduled for fast resolution of issues (in addition to routine meetings). At a smaller organization as a project manager, you have the opportunity to establish strong and trusting relationships by getting to know your team members on a more personal level and learning what drives them. This understanding will go a long way when it comes time to resolve a critical project issue.

In a larger organization, often the challenges are very different. It becomes a game where one needs to identify the pockets or resistance and win “turf wars”. Battles are never won; they are fought over and over. The issue to resolve often has more to do with “are we ready for this” and “were the expectations for this relationship clear to start with” than getting to know each other on a personal level.

The bottom line to managing relationships is getting others to do what needs to be done because they want to. But make no mistake; managing relationships is not about being “nice”. It's about being appropriate and effective. You can excel at managing relationships even though you might be tough and challenging. You are simply doing it with respect and regard for others. Managing relationships also includes managing up, which means gaining your managers’ assistance, commitment and approval. To manage up, you need to know what is important to your manager on two levels: the business level (what he/she are trying to achieve) and the personal level (your managers’ preferred behavior style and his/her personal needs). Managing up is demonstrating how your agenda supports their agenda (“what's in it for them”).

Getting Results

A family/team-oriented culture, clear roles and responsibilities, dedicated project managers, clear priorities, and a culture that promotes direct and long lasting relationships are elements necessary to get results. Even with all these elements in place, getting results in a small company versus a large company can mean very different things.

A small biotech in the Bay Area outlined a step-by-step approach in achieving results where project plans are developed in teams, then managed to.

  1. Start by aligning and reminding teams of corporate goals and project milestones
  2. Inform project teams and subteams of timeline development process: bottom-up approach, planned meetings, expectations
  3. Then meet with each function and subteam to determine the project activities needed to achieve the milestones and corporate goals
  4. Determine which tasks are subtasks
  5. Determine project logic (establish links)
  6. Obtain best estimate durations based on previous projects / experience
  7. Combine all project tasks into one, integrated timeline
  8. Review integrated timeline with Core Team, subteams and functions. Revise as needed
  9. Go through several iterations with teams until all agree to and support the project timeline
  10. Share timeline with Management and gain buy-in
  11. Execute the project plan by managing the higher level activities while subteams/functions manage the details of those activities (project manager can assist with rolling-wave process as team moves closer to milestone)
  12. Manage / update / communicate timeline routinely

Getting results in larger organizations has more to do with institutionalizing best practices than with a specific process. There is always a stage-gate like process that is followed (as described in the diagram below), but it is not enough. The use of a company work breakdown structure template that reflects the stage-gate process is key to getting results as there is very little time to reinvent the wheel. The focus in a large company is on resource management: identifying resource inefficiencies and who might be under- or over-allocated.


Exhibit 2

Making a difference on a daily basis

Making a difference on a daily basis in a small biotech company, as discussed in the small company perspective presentation, can mean leading by example. Leading by example means that you follow the rules, the unwritten as well as written rules for doing business in your company. A major component of leading is dealing with communications. You must constantly communicate to ensure everyone has the same understanding of what was discussed and what the goals are. Leading by example can also mean being open to new ideas and alternative methods for improvement. By doing all this, your team will realize the value you bring to the table, the value project management brings, and results will follow.

The above is also very true of a larger organization. Another dimension presented within the large pharmaceutical company perspective is resource management. On a daily basis, one can make a difference by better planning and forecasting your resource allocations. The difference in terms of results can be significant. Optimizing your resource allocations will be difficult to do without resource management software in place, specifically in a large organization. Better allocating people means that each person will have the opportunity to make a difference. Should we assume that everyone matters in an organization or that only your “A” or best performers matter?

The difference one person makes

Mary Ann Lumiqued at Anesiva believes that every person matters in a small organization and each individual truly can make a difference. One person can make everyone's job easier or harder depending on their contribution. Mary Ann works closely with the “non-team players” by coaching them on how to cohesively collaborate and communicate better within cross-functional teams. If no improvement is made and the team is suffering, she will eventually raise the issue to Upper Management. As a project manager, you can involve yourself in the interviewing process for all potential core team members to ensure that each individual the organization brings in is capable of working in teams.

Eric Morfin at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics also agrees that every person matters in a large organization. One of the unique aspects of managing people in a larger company is to make sure that decisions relating to someone's responsibilities are not made without that person's involvement. At the end of the day, everyone's contributions should help the company mature in project management.

Maturing project management

In a small company, you can start by implementing best practices slowly. You need to allow sufficient time for everyone to realize the impact the project management practices you've implemented have on the organization. You can be most effective by not calling project management activities using the project management terminology such as “Gantt Chart”, “Fast-Tracking the schedule” or “Project Charter” as those unfamiliar with these terms may immediately dismiss you and your project management methodologies simply because the terminology is jargon to them. Instead, just do it; execute and facilitate your project management methods. Team members will start to notice the positive impact these activities have on the project and the organization. Eventually, you will gain the support of your team members and your management. Then you can introduce, educate and implement more project management practices throughout all projects.

In a larger organization, you might take a different approach. The Maturity Scale shown in the figure below is a way to communicate where the company is and where it needs to be. This Maturity Scale becomes the road map to implement better project management practices throughout the organization. You will still need to work on the organization's culture and ensure this road map gets accepted. But once this is achieved, implementing new practice becomes a function of the road map. The items in red on the figure below (Exhibit 3) show which practices have been implemented so far at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.


Exhibit 3

Conclusion and Critical Success Factors

We have discussed many aspects: culture, roles and responsibilities, priorities, relationships, getting results, making a difference on a daily basis, whether one person matters, and how to ensure that your organization matures. This is too much to remember. Mary Ann Lumiqued relies on the following success factors to help her company mature in project management. She calls them the “A, B, Cs”. You need to ensure you have you're A, B, Cs in place or rather your A, B, C, D and Es’ critical success factors.

  • An Assertive Ambassador
  • Be proactive, Be exemplary
  • Constant and Consistent Communicator
  • Do-er, Driver
  • Emphasize and Embody integration

Once you have your A, B, Cs in place, Eric Morfin recommends that you MYOB or Manage Your Own Business. MYOB is really about seeing your project management function, whether it is two people or 36 people as a business unit within the larger organization that needs to be managed. His critical success factors are the following:

  • Marketing
  • Your Processes
  • Open your Culture to Change
  • Best Practices

Relying on these critical success factors will enable you to successfully implement best project management practices in your organization whether it is a small or large company, new at project management or trying to achieve the higher levels of maturity.


Why You Should Have A Dedicated Project Manager On Your Team (2006). Courtland R. LaVallee, Genentech Inc. Presentation delivered at the PMI Pharmaceutical LIG on July 6, 2006.

Eric Morfin and Mary Ann Lumiqued
Originally published as a part of 2006 Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle, Washington



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