I’m proud of the fact that our research department completes about 40 research projects a year.  However, the more significant number is two. That’s how many staff members we have at present working on market research (and I’m one of them).  I know several client-side researchers for whom this is also a reality, and I know more are out there!  Based on the results of Quirk’s 2012 salary survey of corporate researchers, it doesn’t sound like departments will be growing by leaps and bounds anytime soon: 52% feel it’s unlikely their companies will bring on additional researchers in 2012. 

So, how can you manage a large workload with a small department of two, three, or even five staff members? Here are a few tips and tricks that we use:

Create a Standard Research Brief 
The argument that all research projects are “vastly different and completely unique” doesn’t hold water with me. For each research project, there are a set of common key questions that are important to capture at the outset, such as: Who is the project stakeholder? Will you be offering an incentive? What’s the budget? Who’s the audience? Etc. Etc. Etc.  You get the idea.  For your company's projects, the questions may be different, but sit down and figure out what the common threads are for your projects and document those key questions. Create a simple document that you fill out for each and every project (be consistent!), and store that document in a place that your team can access it easily.  Not only can this brief serve as a helpful discussion guide for your kickoff meetings, but also it will provide a record of the project information that your staff can access if you’re away.

Systematize your workflow
Just as there are a set of standard questions to kick off each project, there are a common set of tasks for your research projects. You have a kickoff meeting for each project, right? If you’re running surveys, each survey needs to be tested, launched, terminated and analyzed, right?

If you're not using project management software of some sort, run don’t walk to one of the free or paid project management software solutions such as BasecampdotProject, or MS SharePoint. They will help keep you on task (literally). The point here is NOT to get you mired in the details, but to eliminate those late night “Did you do this? Where is that?” emails. With a system in place for your project workflow, there is one place for you and your team to check to see what’s next for each project.

But don’t ‘set it and forget it’ – do an audit of your standard tasks every six months or so, as your workflow and tasks will change over time as the business needs change and as you continue to streamline your processes.

Map out as much of the year as possible
On a more macro level, map out all the projects for the next 12 months that you know of.  I know some subscribe to just doing this by quarter, but I advocate a 12 month view, especially if you have a small staff.

Even if you have just a vague idea that so-and-so wants a quant project sometime in November, pencil it in as you’re going to need to work around Thanksgiving, staff vacations, etc.  Having this at the ready is incredibly important in those project kick-off meetings so you’re aware of what you can handle and when given your small department size.

If you’re looking for a super-fast way to visualize your projects in a Gantt chart, take a look at
Tom’s Planner – you can upload project info from spreadsheets (or SharePoint, etc.) and with 2 clicks have a dynamic view of your week, month, quarter or year. I use this all the time for quick visuals.

Remember, putting these systems and structure in place will NOT make you a slave to the details, but rather create a well-oiled machine which will help things to run smoothly when the requests are coming in thick and fast, and will leave you with some brain space for strategic thinking!

After all, your company is looking to YOU to be the strategic thinker around customer insights, and you need to be able to deliver.  After attending sessions such as Kraft Canada’s “Giving the Gift of Insight to your Company” session at TMRE in November (part of the Strategy and Futuring track) you can hit the ground running with what you’ve learned when you get back to the home office, rather than getting back and spinning your wheels trying to figure out “Oops, did we remember to ask that at the kickoff meeting? Where did I save my project notes?"