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Professional, Objective Project Management for New Product Development

Scott J. Edgett


How do organizations that have achieved Product Development excellence handle project management?

One of the best practices is to implement professional, objective project management. Regardless of background, whether business or technical, project managers should be trained and skilled in objective decision making. That is, even if the project manager comes from a technical background, he or she should be able to view projects from a broader perspective.

Ensure the project manager has the ability to make objective decisions, regardless of personal, emotional, or technical attachment to the project.

The research study found that companies use a variety of different approaches to project leadership. The most popular approaches are to have research and development (31.7%) or professional project leaders (28.6%) lead development teams (as illustrated in Figure 1). However, the tendency to employ professional project leaders is much greater at the best-practice organizations that were the focus of case study research – 60% (this included both full and part-time development team leaders).

Figure 1 - Who tends to lead your business entity's product/service development teams?
Figure 1 - Who tends to lead your business entity's product/service development teams?

How Best-Practice Organizations Do It

Electro Scientific Industries Inc. (ESI)

ESI is a leading supplier of innovative, laser-based manufacturing solutions for the microtechnology industry. Its systems enable precise structuring and testing of micron to submicron features in semiconductors, LEDs and other high-value components. Founded in 1944, ESI is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, with global operations ranging from the Pacific Northwest to the Pacific Rim.

Project Management at ESI

At ESI, a full-time, experienced program manager leads each New Product Development (NPD) project. By driving all functions involved to meet the project’s objectives, the program manager is responsible for the integrity of the NPD process at the team level. This job requires a unique set of skills: toughness, fearlessness, and comfort delivering both good and bad news to management.

One important distinction that ESI emphasizes is that the program manager is not the technical decision maker. By removing any technical stake for the program manager in the project, that individual can focus more on the broader cross-functional deliverables needed to bring the product successfully to market and less on the design and engineering aspect of the project. At any one time, ESI’s program managers are usually working on two to three projects.


Founded in 1985 in Quebec City, Canada, EXFO provides optical testing solutions, wireless protocol analyzers and network simulators, and portable test sets to the telecommunications industry. With 44 percent of its work force in R&D, EXFO focuses on scalable service solutions for fixed and mobile telecommunications networks. EXFO has a working presence in 25 countries with manufacturing facilities in Quebec and China and sales and support offices all over the world.

Project Management at EXFO

At EXFO, a project manager (considered an important strategic position) leads each NPD team. EXFO's R&D employees follow one of two tracks: technical or managerial. The project manager position ranks high on the latter track. Project managers usually have a technical background but do not specialize in a particular technology in this role. They must provide objective guidance and maintain a disciplined distance from technical details during each stage of the project so that they can keep the project moving efficiently. The project manager, responsible for approximately five projects at a given time, helps determine which deliverables are appropriate and how to apply process rules. By leading the logistics of the project and staying out of the more technical elements, the project manager can guide the team objectively and make decisions that are best for the project and support business objectives.

Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD)

BD is a global medical technology company that develops, manufactures, and sells medical supplies, devices, laboratory instruments, antibodies, reagents, and diagnostic products. BD is a Fortune 500 organization, with more than 50 locations across North America, Latin America, Western Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Japan.

Project Management at BD

The core team leader at BD is seen as the general manager and chief architect of the project and is ultimately responsible for its success. Although most core team leaders come from technical backgrounds, the organization increasingly emphasizes filling this role with strong project managers. These project managers are given extensive training and must:

  • possess project management skills,
  • be business-savvy and adept at interpersonal interactions,
  • handle resourcing and other team issues, and
  • create and manage schedules and budgets.

Core team leaders also reinforce the business perspective throughout the NPD process. They continuously coordinate with leadership to provide updates on project status, schedule appropriate project reviews, and provide input on team member performance evaluations. Core team leaders report to the program management office and are considered equivalent to functional managers in terms of grouping and compensation. Depending on a project’s complexity, core team leaders might focus on one project full-time or work on several projects simultaneously.

Ashland Inc.

Ashland Inc. is a global specialty chemicals organization that is composed of five businesses.  One division, Performance Materials, sells resins for composites and high-performance adhesives in two main markets: transportation and building/construction.

Project Management at Ashland

Unique among the best-practice partners in this study, Ashland allows two types of project management depending on the business unit: management by a technical lead and management by a dedicated project manager. The typical NPD project team at Ashland’s Performance Materials division is headed by a lead chemist. Ideally, a lead chemist is only in charge of one project at a time to allow for full dedication and ownership of the project. The lead chemist is responsible for managing all the team members and delegating tasks. The lead chemist is mentored by a Six Sigma Black Belt or Master Black Belt and is sponsored by the technology group leader. Ashland’s Performance Materials division emphasizes having project leaders from science or engineering backgrounds responsible for the technical execution of projects.

Like other best-practice organizations in this study, one of Ashland’s other business units, Valvoline, has project team leads who are not technical experts; they are project management experts. These project managers support a content leader specialist and take on more administrative tasks. These project managers typically work on 10 to 20 projects at one time. These project managers are typically being groomed for leadership positions and must delegate tasks, facilitate groups, communicate with sales and marketing, and be customer-oriented.

This article is the third in a series of articles that offer valuable data on the strategic steps organizations are taking to improve product development. A full analysis of the research study, with full case studies of the organizations described above, is available in the research report New Product Development: Process Benchmarks and Performance Metrics.

About Stage-Gate International

Stage-Gate International’s highly knowledgeable and experienced team of advisors have guided hundreds of organizations to successfully implement a best-practice Stage-Gate Idea-to-Launch process in as little as 4-8 weeks. We accelerate time-to-benefit with an extremely attractive return on investment by:

  • Crafting a balanced Idea-to-Launch Process Solution of expertise, advice, facilitation and best practices that fits your company’s situation, sense of urgency, and budget.
  • Collaborating with you so that your Idea-to-Launch process is implemented rapidly and your organization is equipped to ‘own’ and manage the process as quickly as possible.
  • Leveraging our market-leading accelerators, Benchmarker™ and SG Navigator™, to not only deliver all of the foundational elements straightaway, and ‘clear the path’ for rapid achievement of a  best-practice Idea-to-Launch process.

Dr. Scott J. Edgett

Scott J. Edgett is Chief Executive Officer at Stage-Gate International and is internationally recognized as one of the world's top experts in product innovation. A high-profile speaker, sought-after consultant, and executive advisor, he is the pioneer of the critical practice of new product portfolio management, and principally focuses on issues affecting innovation performance, capability and leadership. Consulting and advising some of the world's best innovators and companies among the Fortune 1000, he has extensive experience working with large multi-national clients in a variety of industries. He is credited with helping business executives and product innovation professionals successfully implement world-class product innovation programs that have generated outstanding performance results.

A co-author of eight books, including the popular 'Product Innovation & Technology Strategy', and a published author of 70+ academic articles, Dr. Edgett is a former professor at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University.