Tips for running a successful European project

To win and successfully complete a European Commission project (H2020, Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, etc.) implies a lot of work and coordination. Proposal preparation is notorious for the amount of effort needed in a short period of time. Running the project does not perhaps require such burst of efforts but, nevertheless, includes a lot of hard work, and the risks of ‘getting it wrong’ are numerous.

There is no general list of ingredients or advice that can guarantee the success of a project, no matter how closely it is managed. Risks exist, and issues that were not envisaged may arise, affecting the project’s outcome. Project teams need to pay attention to project execution in order to deliver expected results. That’s what project management is all about. Here are some simple tips that, in our experience, are helpful in running a project that delivers on its promises, both in the proposal phase, and during the project lifecycle. 

1. Assign the right people to the right job

This advice might sound self-evident, but it is not necessary followed by project teams.

The first level of ‘right people’ is the consortium/overall project team itself. Are the right partners included in the consortium? Can everyone deliver on their promises? These questions are basic but critical, since they will determine, in large part, both the success of the proposal and whether the project delivers on its promises, on time and within budget, which is in fact the most important criterion for the success of a project. 

The ‘right partners’ can take many forms. The consortium can include partners that have strong research output capabilities, or someone who offers access to a unique network or, finally, someone who has the appropriate stakeholder backing. It is the responsibility of the project manager to identify all the necessary requirements of the project (either stated or in the background) to the fullest extent possible and try to create the adequate consortium.

Additionally, the right people need to be assigned for the right tasks. It is not perhaps best for a project to include only senior people with large experience, since they tend to have very little time available. People at the correct level of experience with the ability to dedicate significant time to the project are also needed.

It is almost certain that there will be a requirement for unscheduled work, so including team members with some scheduling flexibility is also important. 

2. Ensure excellent and efficient internal communication

Full and timely communication with, and between, the project team members is crucial, and will increase mutual trust and the understanding of what’s expected of each team member, which increases the likelihood of on-time task completion. 

The same can be said for communication between project partners. Proactive communication is needed to maintain interest in projects by the whole consortium as well as to ensure that all issues are identified and solved, and avoid major issues just before the final deliverable deadline.

It is also important to ensure effective communication with the EC Project Officer. Important issues related to the project, for example financial problems, delays in delivering the expected results etc., should be communicated to the EC Project Officer in a timely manner. This will help the project team to find solutions for the problems at hand, and thus allow for the continuation and finalisation of the on-going project. The EC Project Office is effectively part of the team and must be treated as such. 

3. Be prepared to address unexpected issues

Hope for the best, but prepare for the … unexpected! It is a rarity to not run into obstacles and unexpected situations during a project lifecycle. Very often, things don’t go exactly as planned and we can’t anticipate any totally unexpected hurdles that might come our way, even if the critical risks for implementation were carefully thought out and defined. That’s why it is wise to consider things from all angles and have a plan for backup measures. 

Knowing about possible risks is, in itself, insufficient. It is important that project managers develop an effective response plan, have access to the required resources (money, manpower …), and have the authority to ensure that the necessary action is taken. 

These issues are usually considered when addressing the risk management plan, which is composed of three main aspects:

  • Risk analysis - identification, classification, and assessment of risks;
  • Risk mitigation plan - documented plan for addressing key risks;
  • Risk monitoring - ongoing reporting of progress and impact of anticipated areas of risk.

 4. Be critical

There is a lot of competition for EC grants. Success is certainly not guaranteed. But there are valuable lessons to be learned from unsuccessful proposals. Documenting what went wrong and what was needed can be glimpsed from the evaluation as well as from the winning project proposal (what did they have that you didn’t?). 

In the same way, use the project reviews as a test bed for your running of the project. Compare what you were criticized for against your procedures. Perhaps that will enable you to improve all your projects, and not just the one that you are running. It is important in a project to have timely reviews, so if the required EC reviews are perhaps not sufficient, why not introduce inter-consortium ones? This is particularly useful for projects that produce a lot of results that require critical acceptance before moving forward. Having partners reviewing the deliverables is very good, but perhaps a full day internal review is even better to really point out any issues. 

In conclusion, we can consider that a project is a success if it delivers on all agreed project objectives, be they scope, schedule, budget, results quality or outcomes. Running a project in a smart and structured way, leading to success, is not an easy task. There are lots of rules and tips that can be applied, including, but certainly not limited to, the above. However, every project is different, and every project manager has a unique way of working. What is essential is to find the method that works best for you and your project, and incorporate it into your project management planning!

ESF has coordinated over 20 high profile EC projects (From FP6 to H2020) and can provide support in your proposal preparation and overall project management. Learn more about ESF's European Projects Coordination Support.

EC projects can be frustrating but they DON’T have to be if approached the right way.

Consider that you are leading a multinational effort that will add a piece of knowledge to the European community. Despite the issues, it is a unique and valuable experience.


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