Community Forum – Number of R&D Projects

Resource Type
Survey (Community Forum)
Innovation Research Interchange
Project Management
Associated Event

How many projects should R&D people have at a time?

what is the “average” number of projects that are being worked on at any one time by the average R&D person? I’ve heard it said that generally, R&D people should have 3-5 projects that they are working on at any one time and any more than that is overwhelming. – Director, Large consumer products company

Community Responses

Stewart Witzeman, Director, Eastman Research Division, Eastman Chemical Company
The number of projects very much depends on the nature of the work. For some highly complex and highly integrated projects, a fully dedicated team is often appropriate. My own rule of thumb is that I start to worry if I see individuals with four or more projects and, in fact, track this as an indicator of project overload.

There are exceptions at this end as well. We sometimes have individuals with highly specialized skills that have a large number of projects where they play a small, but important, role in each project. Key in all these cases is understanding the role the individual is playing on the project and whether there are activities that need to be completed that are on the project critical path that are conflicting for the person’s time.

Kati Fritz-Jung, VP, Research & Development, Sargento Foods​
Generally speaking, I have used your rule of thumb but have found that it is very dependent on the nature and goals of the project. I have had individuals focus on one primary project big in scope while keeping another two moving forward as time allows. I have also had individuals manage eight projects quite well. In these cases the projects were straight forward and simple to execute. There was an R&D group that I was responsible for where we had an elaborate time tracking system. This allowed us to estimate the amount of time a project would most likely need. Technical development time, blue sky work, etc. was taken into account when dividing different sized projects to people. This worked surprisingly well. It also helped manage business unit R&D capacity and hence expectations.

VP, Mid-sized B2B consumable supplier
We used to have 3 to 8 projects and had very poor cycle times.  Of recent, we work with the rule of thumb, one primary project and a secondary as filler.  No more.  In reality, developers who are well connected with operations will always get dragged into daily issues – hence the restriction to 1 or 2 projects.  If you can stick to it, it will work.

Phil Minerich, Vice President, Research & Development, Hormel
Great question. Hormel doesn’t seem to follow many ‘rules’ when it comes to these sort of topics. Our scientists average anywhere from 15-25 active projects at one time. But to be fair, they carry a balanced load of close-in (<4 months), medium (<1 year) and long term (> 1 year) projects, so they have some flexibility to manage their work load. However, I believe we ask a lot from our group and am working hard to reduce the individual work loads to facilitate more creative application of science and technology.

Jeff Lane, Director, Milliken​
Different expectations from your R&D staff would lead to different answers.  In our situation, we expect that researchers spend approximately 15% of their time doing self-directed R&D (we call this “skunkworks”).  The leadership team views this time as “Unmanaged but accountable”.  As such we build margin into the work load of the R&D staff by only assigning researchers to only one project at a time.  It is also our philosophy that moving fewer projects faster is better than moving more projects slower.

Dan Abramowicz, Executive VP Technology & Regulatory Affairs, Crown Holdings​
Of course, it depends upon the size and the priority of the project as well as a number of other factors.  However, in an ideal world the average number of projects would be one per person to ensure optimal progress and speed-to-market.  In reality, taking all issues into account, 2-3 projects per person is more likely and works effectively in most situations.  More than three projects per person is sub-optimal.

Ted Farrington, Senior Director, Pepsico Advanced Research​
There was a study done some time back showing that an engineer’s productivity on each project drops rapidly after about 3 simultaneous projects. 

Larry J. Howell, Executive Director, GM R&D Center (Retired 2001), IRI Emeritus
In my experience, there was considerable variation as to how many projects a researcher could handle.  Some were able to devote time to several projects and at the same time offer consultation to many more.  But some researchers were reluctant to commit to more than one or two.  I thought it more important to try to balance things at a higher level, by managing project initiation and termination while setting priorities.  Our approach is described in a paper I wrote for RTM:  Adapting GM Research to a New Corporate Strategy.