Project planning

The process of developing a project plan should be systematic and must involve all team members and relevant stakeholders. The key steps are described below. Click on each heading for details.

Establishing the scope of the project includes reviewing the project goal, objectives, study area, level of health system, target population and sample size, tasks and deliverables. By this time, you should have the research project protocol, an established research team and stakeholders plus the necessary resources including the required budget.

The project duration should realistically reflect the time needed to carry out each phase of the project plan. Be sure that the plan takes into account the time required for staff recruitment and logistics. The project timelines should outline:

  • a description of the tasks to be performed;
  • schedule and deadlines within tasks;
  • people assigned to the tasks;
  • number of person-days required to complete each task.

The duration of a project has serious consequences in terms of meeting deadlines for deliverables and the final report and as such, project planning must follow rigorous project management standards. There are commercial software packages such as the Microsoft Project, available to help prepare and monitor the implementation of a work plan.

Work plans/timelines are most effectively displayed in a graphic, table or spreadsheet. If done correctly, the timeline will help visually demonstrate the feasibility of the project. Ideally, the work plan should include clear details, identifying specific tasks and outlining when the activity will take place and responsibilities. Figures 1 and 2 show some of the formats project timelines can adopt. Choose the most appropriate style for your project.

A successful research project, requires adequate and well managed human, logistic, technical and financial resources. All resources should be mobilized prior to the execution of the project. Potential funding sources such as multilateral agencies, bilateral donors, private foundations and trusts, as well as in-country sources, are discussed in the Developing an IR proposal Module.

It is advisable to conduct a detailed assessment of all resources required to accomplish the project goal(s). Human resources should be sufficient in terms of both number and experience/capacity. For each activity, requirements for equipment/materials should be established. Likewise, the financial requirements for each item – as well as the total cost to undertake each activity within the project plan – must be mapped out and budgeted in detail. In addition, management plans for human resources, logistics, and budget must be developed. Team members’ technical capacities should match the identified tasks/requirements as closely as possible. In cases of a mismatch, efforts to enhance their capacity should be built into the project plan.

Quality assurance is integral to all research activities and it is essential to embed quality management into your protocol/planning. Quality management is the responsibility of everyone engaged in the project and is essential to ensuring that the project meets or exceeds the applicable scientific, ethical and regulatory standards. The quality management plan should explicitly outline how your research team will take consistent, ongoing measures to monitor and evaluate quality and rigour of the research. It should indicate how you will evaluate quality at various stages. For example, if the project lasts more than one year, you may want to stipulate that you intend to have annual quality monitoring evaluations and reports. In order to facilitate rapid adjustments and corrections, the quality standard procedures should be communicated with all stakeholders. Quality management should also express a constant and consistent concern for research participants, such as how you will protect their privacy, and measures you will take to protect them from harm. Figure 3 provides a visual example of how continuous and consistent quality management activities can be ensured.

Some of the key activities you can integrate into your IR project to enhance its quality include:

  • protocol review and approval;
  • standard operating procedures (SOPs);
  • validation of research instruments;
  • project team training;
  • quality control and monitoring;
  • evaluation of services provided;
  • evaluation of the performance of service providers;
  • review of reports.

Monitoring and evaluation strategies that can help to facilitate the quality of your research project include (see also Table 3):

  • Information log to keep track of feedback from stakeholders, news stories published and articles written about the project, and the number of times research has been cited in the academic literature.
  • Detailed documentation: Many of the observations made during the continuous monitoring of activities are contextual and critical to the interpretation of the results.
  • A survey can be conducted with members of the target audience(s) in order to generate feedback. For example, questionnaires can be distributed using appropriate and affordable means.
  • A series of key informant interviews with stakeholders at various levels of the health system can provide an insight into whether, and how the research was used.

Project risks include both threats to the project’s objectives and opportunities to improve on those objectives. Risk management is a systematic process of anticipating, identifying, analysing and responding to project risks/threats, and should be considered throughout the project lifecycle. A risk management plan describes the process of risk identification, analysis, response planning, how monitoring and control will be structured and performed during the project.

Risks should be prioritized according to the level of potential impact on the project. The tools and techniques for risk identification include document review, information gathering techniques such as brainstorming, interviewing and strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analyses, etc.1

Some examples of risks in a research project are:

  • Lack of resource commitment.
  • Unexpected budget cuts.
  • Loss of some research team members before completion of the tasks.
  • No stakeholder inputs.
  • Poor communication within the team.
  • Key pieces of equipment break down.
  • Inadequate team training.

Table 4 outlines some of the approaches that can be adopted to mitigate risks in a research project.

Project monitoring is not only important to identify implementation challenges, but also to take account of gaps identified during execution and make project plan modifications accordingly. Taking time to monitor project progress allows researchers and other stakeholders to systematically and thoughtfully compare progress made with agreed milestones, and to make any necessary adjustments. The monitoring plan outlines how project activities are to be tracked, and links strategic information from various data collection systems to ongoing decisions about how to improve the project. The monitoring plan also helps with standardization and coordination, making procedures more transparent and helping keep implementation on track.

Although monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities are important components of IR, you should be cognizant that M&E and IR are not equivalent.2 While most M&E plans provide a guide for monitoring an entire project, the monitoring plan in this context is intended to monitor only the processes involved in the implementation of the research and not health outcomes. Whereas an IR project is often part of a health programme – and includes wan M&E system itself – researchers should make an effort to develop a monitoring plan tailored specifically to measure the immediate implementation outcomes of the project. The process of developing a monitoring plan is described in detail in the following section.

The direct aim of project-focused communications and advocacy is to ensure that the right information is communicated to the right audience, with a clear rationale, and in a timely fashion. The overall goals are to promote ownership and engagement in the research by key stakeholders, and ultimately to help promote and facilitate uptake of research results into related policies and programmes.

Before you develop a communications and advocacy plan, you should have clear project objectives, as well as a clear understanding of the information needs of various stakeholders. The communication plan presents the communication goals, tools, timings and audiences. The primary target audience are the direct beneficiaries of the information, while the secondary audience are the direct influencers of the primary target audience. To help facilitate uptake of your research findings, your plan should indicate how you intend to inform all stakeholders of your research findings at specific stages of the research. The process of developing a communication plan is described in more detail in the Communications and advocacy module of this toolkit.

Table 5 demonstrates an outline of a communication and advocacy plan for a project providing circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy and Table 6 demonstrates an example of a secondary target audience for the same project.

The evaluation plan demonstrates how the research objectives will be met. It also indicates how you intend to keep close track of changes in the project plan and problems encountered and (not) solved, so you can inform the stakeholders and include this information in all preliminary/intermediate reports. An evaluation plan also serves the following purposes: (i) identifies who will use the evaluation findings; (ii) describes information needed, sources and evaluation methods/instruments used; (iii) examines how the project objectives will be met; (iv) tracks the expected impact of the intervention; and (v) demonstrates that the scope of the evaluation is appropriate.

Research teams often hire consultants to conduct project evaluations and the associated cost is about 10% of total budget. In your plan, indicate whether the evaluation will be conducted by an internal team member or an external consultant. Furthermore, the evaluation plan should include a sense of concern for what will happen following the conclusion of the funding period. For example, how will the initiatives started under the project be sustained? How will other cooperating agencies assist in continuing the project after the conclusion of the funding period?

TDR Implementation research toolkit(Second edition)

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