Month: March 2017

“Make Time for the Work That Matters” – re-post

Project managers are the servants of the Goddess of Time. Things need to be delivered and tasks – to be accomplished by a certain deadline. Contracts need to be signed, the event – organised, the equipment – checked, the building permissions – secured, the meeting – attended, the plans – drawn, the email traffic – organised. And these are only a few of the daily project manager’s tasks. Experiencing a feeling of being overwhelmed is not unusual in projects. There are number of ways to deal with it or, even better, prevent it.

One tool I find helpful is this Self-Assessment tool for Identifying Low-Value Tasks from “Make Time for the Work That Matters” by Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen from the September 2013 Issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The results of the self-assessment will give you a clear idea of what to drop, delegate, or redesign.

Next, look at the things you should be doing but are not. And commit to what you delegated and the tasks that matter to the company/organisation, the project and to you.

If you are not a fan of self-assessments, there is another simpler way to manage your tasks at hand: “The Not-To-Do List” by Sage Grayson.

Or design your own tool and find what works for you and your projects.

Human resources management dilemmas: a story

Everyone was pushing for his dismissal. His client, the project sponsor, the implementing agency. All except for me. I’ve dragged on the file for four months, for as long as I could, given the pressure from all sides.

A letter from the client to the project sponsor put an end to his contract. We settled for a mutually agreed termination of the contract and a bit of extra paid days.1.4

In the three weeks that followed from his resignation letter, he displayed the model of best professional behaviour. He was cooperating in his hand-over to a remarkable extent. I tried my best to respond to all his e-mails (up to seven a day some days), his telephone calls. I knew it was important to him. To talk to and to listen to him.

There was no blame. Just a set of circumstances.

A farewell coffee, a farewell note, cc-ed to entire team and a recommendation letter. A warm shake of hands and an eye contact to last throughout years. The least I could have done.

I often missed his honesty, integrity, eloquent communication style and a sense of humour to envy. Rare qualities these days.

My takeaway lesson from this is simple: As project managers, we need to look beyond strict client-consultant relations and understand the numerous complexities involved. Thanks to this mindfulness, I would like to believe, he was fully supportive of all management interventions that were required.


his last e-mail to me                                                                                                                                   10 June 20xx

I hesitate to say, “You’re an absolute darling”, for obvious reasons … but you are.



The simple art of confidence in projects and beyond

One of recent birthday cards from my dear colleagues read “We are happy to have such a confident colleague!”. I am thankful they let me see the way they see me. Especially, after a year of self-doubts, lows and struggles.
Some think confidence is built-in, genetic. Some think it’s about habits and choice. Might be both.
What I do is no rocket science, just a few tricks:self_confidence A. I know that fear and doubt are good signs. They save me from complacency and push my boundaries. I know I made it last time and there is no reason I cannot do better.
B. I say a polite “No, thank you” to my comfort zone. I have a public speech anxiety? I’ll ask my manager to book 15 min in our next meeting for an intervention. Once on the agenda, noblesse oblige.
C. I breath. I listen to my body. To its signs. I feel my heart racing? Good. My brain and body get more oxygen.
D. I move. I am relentless. I get things done. Procrastination? Fine, allowed sometimes. Bothering? Get off my *… and do something. Bake. Prepare home-made chocolate. Water my plants. Go to colleagues and ask if they need help.
E. I have fun. Once I drew a funny face carrot on a flip chart in a difficult Carrots-and-Sticks policy dialogue.
F. Some say confident people don’t care about what others think. I do. As long as I can learn something from it. Confidence in others strengthens my confidence.
One time, I had to share the feedback from an important partner with a consultant. It was very good to excellent but he did not know it. I handed it over in a sealed envelope with a grave face. “Is it bad?” He asked. “Yes, it is”, I answered and watched him turning red as he took off the papers. One minute later: “I knew you are bad. But you are very bad!” And we laughed. I took his point. Confidence does not need to be associated with bad.
G. I am staying on a judgement-free territory. Judging and gossiping are a waste of time and energy. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even if this was a hiring mistake.
H. I am resourceful. I know I do not have all the answers, but I have ideas where to look for solutions, whom to ask. I learned this from my first Human Rights professors. “A good lawyer does not need to know the law by heart. Knowing where to find answers makes a good lawyer”. I practice the same with people I work with. There are clear “Who’s monkey is this?” rules and I always ask if problems people face come with solutions and options to consider together.
I. Comparison is the thief of joy. I admit to the sin of comparison only with better and seek inspiration from most unexpected sources and people.
J. I build a network of friends and supporters. Sorry, negative perspectives and people with tendency to drag back are not part of it. I also know I cannot please everyone in life.
K. I keep trying. A failure? Good. Learned something. A mistake? Is it an interesting mistake? Oh yes, come in, and teach me. I am ready to try again.

Thank you Alden Tan for inspiration.

A good quote to reflect on: “Confidence comes from knowing what is true, even if it’s not what you were taught should be true.” (sex educator Emily Nagoski).

Gender mainstreaming: a ladder

I was in gender mainstreaming training some time ago. Two hours into the learning, a participant exclaimed: “but we deal not only with women in our projects!”. You can picture the facepalm of the trainer.Quite often I also hear what a hurdle it is to ‘mainstream gender” and other cross-cutting issues into development work. There are a number of simple approaches to befriend what became a standard requirement in projects.Use a “ladder” for instance.Step 1. Find out if gender matters. A gender impact assessment (GIA) will bring the answer. GIA will identify answers to:

  • is the project objective linked with gender inequality patters? The most common patterns relate to differences in the: access to decision-making, representation; access to resources; social/legal/financial status and entitlements.
  • will reaching the project objective affect women and men in a different way/women and men of different age groups in a different way?
  • will the above cause inequality? if yes, take Step 2.

Step 2. Get data. I know, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. And it is not about numbers. It is about the way they influence things and decision-makers.  “Figures often beguile me” wrote Mark Twain. Yes, numbers can charm or deceive. Triangulation can help break the charm sometimes.

Step. 3. Prevent/solve inequalities at the levels they manifest themselves. It can be project organisation matters (for example, the membership of Steering Committees) or policy matters influenced by the project (for example, through expert opinions on a draft law).Across all three steps, check you assumptions. Is what we know true/valid? Is this what both genders want/aspire to…? I came across “Testosterone Rex” by Cordelia Fine. See if this review “Goodbye, beliefs in sex differences disguised as evolutionary facts. Welcome the dragon slayer: Cordelia Fine wittily but meticulously lays bare the irrational arguments that we use to justify gender politics.”—Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development, University College London” will serve as in invitation to read it. Or, this article “A Feminist Biologist Discusses Gender Differences In The Animal Kingdom” by Suzanne Sadedin, Evolutionary Biologist on

Each project/development work is different and many gender complexities will arise. And it is rare to reach the 100% gender mainstreamed target. It is still possible to bring a meaningful change/two and by starting small.

Sometimes, it is about giving the floor or creating a forum for all voices to be heard equally. It reminds me of an organisation 50% made of women who had less then 10% representation in decision-making bodies. Supporting an inclusive strategic planning exercise for both the organisation and the women association helped put a first stone into the road towards a more equitable representation and inclusive decision-making.

Standard Operating Procedures

Projects are busy beasts. It is their very nature. Lots of processes running in parallel on the critical path. Soon you start noticing a déjà vu feeling. Hiring consultants. Procuring goods. Communicating on the 5th event the project organises. Organising the 3rd board/steering committee meeting. Handing over project results….

Many of these processes require lots of decisions. And our brains have a limited decision making capacity (read more in “Thinking fast slow” by Daniel Kahneman, if interested). Here is where Standard Operating Procedures, also knows as SOPs, come in handy. They are nothing glamorous, yet very utilitarian. SOPs may exist in the organisation or the Project Management Office. Or may be crafted by the project team.

In a Project Management Office I once worked, I was in charge of developing SOPs. I found that SOPs served well at least three purposes. They:

  • give clear instructions on ‘What to do When…”;
  • organise and record the information and its flow;
  • simplify the communication within and between teams.

See for example, a SOP for the Acceptance of the Project’s results/deliverable. Feel free to use it and/or adapt it to your project’s needs.

Template_ Acceptance_EN

Life behind bars: look beyond

I keep the story as a reminder of cognitive biases when I prepare projects. And about how easy it is to fall into the traps of conventions and assumptions.


It was in a former soviet country. Once the gate closes behind you, the air, the walls, the smell, people looks all say “welcome to urss”. Not a very welcome “welcome” though.

It was a planned trip. The administration knew we are coming. White table cloth on meeting tables betrayed it. You cannot come in an unannounced visit to a prison, unless gifted with invisibility skills. What I could not have planned were my feelings and sensations. It does not help being a lawyer trained in human rights in this case.

After a dull meeting with silent and very tense staff, a guided tour was offered by the administration. After the first wall, the family reunion hall opened its door in front of us. A hall with seven doors: a kitchen, five  bedrooms with king size beds, and a bathroom. It’s the dream land for any inmates. For good behavior they get up to five days of family time per year with one of their loved ones. In the kitchen we found a beautiful young woman with big eyes and long lashes. She was cooking a meal for her husband who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I saw sadness and commitment and no trace of resentment in her eyes. Will she be coming every year for the next 18 years to cook meals for her husband? When they retrieved to “their” room, tears filled my eyes.IMG_0778

After the security zone crowned by barbed wire, where a cat seemed chez-soi, we were taken into the heart of the prison. The prison has three blocks. The first one we were taken to was presented as exemplary: clean and all beds were made. It was remarkable as it was a large room, 70 by 100 feet, beds one by one, with tiny passages between the endless rows. I asked whether it looks so orderly because they knew that we were coming. “No”, assured me the head of prison, “it’s a norm now,  after quite „a lot of invested effort and time into discipline”, whatever that means. It was the mine workers block, who get paid for their work and also get their term cut: a day for three days worked in a nearby mine. The room was filled with testosterone. Me and my other female colleague were safe, behind our colleagues from headquarters and their wide shoulders. In parallel, what I found striking was how relaxed were inmates compared to prison staff. After all,  they got it right, it was not them who were inspected.

What followed were a cascade of feelings. An overwhelming feeling of gratitude for my every day meals, when I entered the prison canteen. Gratitude for my health, when I stepped on the white floor of the medical care unit. The feeling of awe for the human creativity when I entered the church the walls in which were being painted by an inmate. The gratitude for my family when I looked into the eyes of a 70 old who stubbed his wife and she was still visiting him in prison. The gratitude for the abundance in my life when I saw two women surrounded by packages of food to fit into a wagon waiting for clearance to enter the prison and feed their dear ones. The acute awareness of the gift of freedom on the tiny, dark corridors of the solitary confinement ….

We were then taken to a workshop where some inmate were filling their days with wood crafts. Good behavior was a ticket to the wood workshop. I noticed the sharp objects they were using and asked whether there are any incidents/accidents involved. “No”, assured me again the head of prison. I asked an old inmate what was he crafting. “A toy for my daughter” he said. It was a beautiful wooden horse. He was dreaming of freedom…

Hiring! Look beyond.2

A story:

a year into her job, one of the best project assistants I worked with successfully applied for a new, better job. We had to look for another assistant. HR recommended taking a second best from a recruitment, which was underway. They shared her tests’ results. The candidate they suggested received the highest scores. At the interview, she appeared to give all the right answers. All members of the panel gave her high scores. She was available to start in a week. Her background check resulted in good opinions. I should have known better.
A week later she was in the project’s office. Two days latter negative attitude and blame assigning were overflowing: “your former assistant made no hand-over”, “no one is giving me anything” etc. After she signed the contract, I learned she is married to a former dignitary whose integrity was a topic of investigation by law enforcement. I started noticing behavior of a person who is used to things getting done for her, who never worked to produce anything for others. Her “assistance” increased my workload by 30 percent. I was leaving the office at nine in the evening and did my work correspondence at night. She had her monkeys on my back.

I let her go to the organization’s retreat in hope she will absorb some of the organisation’s culture. She returned aggressive from that trip. “I know my rights. From now on everything will be in writing. I have my people in the organisation”.
I informed my supervisor and HR as this was bigger than the project office. There was an unprecedented flow of complaints from all concerned by her actions and attitude: consultants, translators, peers, financial and procurement colleagues. Hiring her for that project was a mistake.

What I learned from this experiences:
– There is no ideal candidate. There are candidates with good acting skills. If no light goes on in my head at the interview, this is a reason for concern.

– Having standard interview questions is counterproductive. When hundreds of candidates go through similar job recruitment procedures, there is an increased risk of test questions ‘leaked’ and the interviewer facing a candidate prepared by insider information.

– Instead of standard interview questions go for “crash tests”. Simulate real work situations and put the candidates in the middle of an office where two phones start to ring at the same time, the supervisor asks for something, a consultant steps in with another request, a supplier is late etc. and watch how the candidates react. Drivers are tested not only with an interview questions “can you drive?”, right?

– In countries with systemic corruption issues, pay extra attention to the background of the candidate.

At the end, I was grateful for this experience, which came at a cost, but it also brought me quite different insights into the human nature.

If you are interested about “Whose monkey is this?” read (

Hiring! Look beyond

Hiring the right people for the team is of paramount importance for the success of projects.

Over years, I learned to pay attention to several aspects for a successful recruitment. Many are common sense, which sometimes is overshadowed by the formality of the process.

Attitude: a candidate was recorded as saying at a job interview that she is not interested in the job, but will accept it because she was unemployed for the past six months. Would you consider such a candidate? My answer is No. She got the job. Her attitude, which she to her credit showed at the interview, impacted her performance. When she learned about an upcoming audit, she resigned. The audit revealed why.

Transferable skills: a competition for an expert in customs procedures; three candidates to be interviewed. Two have prior customs related experience. The supervisor, the successful candidate is going to work with, turned increasingly uncomfortable as the interview unfolded. The reason: attitudes exhibited, arrogance and “know it all outlook” on everything and everyone by the first two candidates. The third candidate had none of the customs experience, but a good academic record from a reputable University with world wide credentials, good analytical skills and legal research skills. She was soft spoken, tuned to the audience and  very considerate. She appeared to fit well within the beneficiary’s set up. The choice was clear to me and to her immediate future supervisor. It was not that obvious however to other members of the interview panel, who adhered to “does the candidate respond to advertised job requirements”, which, as we know it, tend to be pretty standardized.  The third candidate got the job. And she was successful in her job and a good addition to the team.  photo-31

Body language: a competition for a project assistant. Five short listed candidates. My colleagues are keen on technical qualifications.

Yes, they type;

yes, they have basic procurement  procedures knowledge;

yes, they can organise an event,

yes, they seem to give the right answers.

Yet, there is always more to it than meets the eye. The way they dressed for the interview, their body language, their reaction to more inquisitive questions, their consideration or lack of it to the members of the questions, their reaction to the appreciation given at the interview. Last but not least, the match between the verbal and non-verbal communication, an insight into their motivation you get from their body language. For example, when you praise the body language control of a candidate he/she may give it up or, to the contrary, increase self-control. Or for example, would you select a candidate who is relaxed, laying back, hands under the table at the beginning of the interview and pretty much throughout the interview or a candidate shoulders up, hands clenched on the table and, as the interview unfolds, relaxing shoulders, using freely his/her hands to amplify the conviction put into words?

Look beyond and within, I aspire to remind myself.

Keep the passion by Gloria M. Grandolini| Voices – re-post

These are reflections from a long career of a development professional about the importance of passion, the inherent nature of bureaucracies in big international organisations and innovation through learning.

I wish there were stories behind the big and impressive numbers. And the insights into how she kept the passion and her commitment to innovate alive. Perhaps in a new post… Still those who would like to embrace a career in development management might find the article and advice useful.