That's a direct order (of that's alright with you)

Making a leadership impact without authority

The cross functional team is commonly found in most of life science, not in the smallest of firms perhaps but certainly in medium and large-sized organisations. In itself this is not so unusual. Project team structures with representative members from various expert functions are found throughout industry. However, the life science (and especially the Pharma) business can claim to deserve special consideration, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the diversity of functional expert in a team is very wide, from early Research scientists, through Regulatory experts, Commercial executives and so on. The constant attention on all these areas and the potential tensions between them means that these guys are generally all full members of teams, rather than being consulted just as and when they are needed.

Secondly, project teams don't often wield the same level of final authority as do their counterparts in non-life science sectors. Facing major investments into highly uncertain ventures, what effectively are billion-dollar go / no-go decisions have to be analysed, checked and considered at escalating levels well above a project team that is nominally in charge of development.

These conditions present a novel challenge for the team leader. Less so in global organisations perhaps, where there may be a lot of support. Project Management Office departments, Project Manager 'academies' that train people for these roles , focusing on the effectiveness of cross-functional - sometimes known as 'matrix' activities.

However, in small or medium sized companies, individuals might find themselves taking on matrix leader roles with little preparation or support.

The individual's challenge

The PM's prior career was typically in a senior functional role where he or she is used to being in control of tasks and people. A PM role often involves a haze of uncertainty, with grey boundaries.

Leading a project is a role that many professional in life science aspire to. It can be a great career move but not without some tricky challenges. This short article explains some of these and some key tips I use to help people develop these skills.

Cross-functional team leadership in our sector is a particular challenge for three main reasons:

  • Teams don't often wield the same level of control as their counterparts in other sectors. Big decisions escalate many levels above the project.

  • Functional members are not necessarily dedicated to the project. They work on others at the same time and on occasion get into conflict with other functions. Plus of course, they all report directly to their own functional managers, not the team leader.

  • Our sector has a history of defining cross functional responsibilities fuzzily.

The person taking on a leadership role comes typically from holding a responsible functional role themselves, perhaps as a section head' used to being in direct control of tasks and people. To add to the complexity, in some small or medium-sized organisations they don't relinquish that functional job completely and have to do both at the same time.

Far from having a dedicated 'project management office' department to support them, as in many big firms, they may have to build their own project leading role and impact, as best they can.

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