Category: Tips and Tools Box

“Tips are like free hugs. Only without that awkward feeling” I read once on a Tips Box of a juice bar in an airport. Same goes for Tips on this blog. Feel free to borrow!

Lion’s Cage: things we do in projects

It was breakfast time. I was wondering whether our trainer – Alex – will show up. My brain was analysing options, in case he will not. I would have understood. The day before was tough.
When Alex got into the breakfast room, he had a poker face so I was prepared for anything.
– It feels as if going into a lion’s cage, said Alex.
– We are the lions, I said, meekly.

He smiled back, took a sip of coffee and went to prepare the room for the day.

How we got there: A client wanted a two day training on a matter they said it was important for the future of the organisation and they wanted to do it only with us. They did not have to pay for it. We had a sponsor. We agreed, found the right trainers and organised the logistics. It was not a small thing, as the audience was of 100 people representing over 30,000 of the organisation’s members.

When day 1 unfolded, a strong sense of opposition to the concepts to be tackled became obvious. The matter was more sensitive to the members of the organisation than we anticipated from the preparatory work with their management. Their internal divisions became also obvious. Not an ideal environment for learning and advancing the interests of the organisation.

But this is the nature of projects – they are not needed in ideal environments. We had to put together our conflict resolution skills, networking skills, positive feedback and the ability to help people find common ground. It also required a ‘is there anything I can do?” question whispered to the chairperson of the organisation, who seemed to enjoy the fight her fellows were putting on with the trainers. She got my point and helped change the tone of the event.

Finally, we managed to put the training on the right track and by the end of Day 2 we could smile and be proud that people were engaging in group work, making presentations and interacting in a civilised way with each other and trainers. They took away a great deal of new and important perspectives for their organisation’s future. Those who stayed to the end and the management of the organisation were fully satisfied and send a Thank You letter afterwards.

We could have stopped after day 1. A note to file would have done the job. Payments would be partial, according to the work and services actually delivered… . Still there was something to it, for us to learn.

My take away:
– be prepared to recover projects at any time;
– trust your members of the team;
– act on prevention with the information you have at hand;
– build alliances and rely on then.


Integrity in projects: offering gifts

– I would buy that painting for the minister. She seemed to have liked it when she visited our office.
– Would you buy it if she was NOT a minister?, asked our Ethics Officer.
That conversation in the conference room of an international organisation stayed with me for years.

We are often tempted to offer something to projects’ partners – a small gift, a token of appreciation, an invitation to an event… .

Then comes the WHY. Why would we offer gifts and things, in addition to the services/products delivered? The reasons might be multiple. “Why not?”, “What harm would it do?”, “It’s just a gesture”, we can hear in response. Still, would you offer the gift to X if he/she was not a decision-maker or a gate-keeper? Most probably not.

Offering gifts carries an intention of some sort, even in the most selfless among us. From a gesture of attention on a birthday or an anniversary of some sort to the implicit or explicit intention of getting advantages and influencing the decision-making for a project’s or personal gain.

Paying bribes is outright illegal and unethical and that is cut in stone for any project manager committed to integrity and accountability, respective of the sector he/she operates in. Projects are often unpredictable beasts and even more so in environments where bribery is a fact of life for making things happen. Taming the beast requires a thorough knowledge and understanding of the local laws and practices, as well as legal preparatory work in forms of incentives, which could be provided in a safe legal arrangement. U.S.A. government contracts sometimes include incentive payments for early project completion, for example.

Project performance depends on people behaviour. And human behaviour can be incentivised provided people health/safety, environment protection and/or laws and regulations are not being infringed.

Many years ago, to ensure presence at meetings, which could only take place outside business hours due to the client’s work programme, I provided tea and snacks to all who came. The offering was for all and all could benefit from it. This way we managed to decide on project’s milestones and move forward. In today’s remote projects environments, decisions can be taken on-line and at each individual’s pace, within an agreed timeframe.

Finding and applying the right and ethical incentives is both an art and technique in a project. What worked in your project environment?

To sum up/Do:
– abide by laws and your Code of Ethics and professional conduct;
– use incentives for performance motivation within legal and social norms;
– check your ‘why’ behind the impulse / desire to offer a gift.

Drawing by Sofia.

From the series “Integrity in project management”. To be continued.

7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them by Alicia Bassuk – Re-post

We tend to be poised after holidays and cheerful as we start delving into 2019 plans.  As work proceeds, I find the article by Alicia Bassuk “7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them” by Alicia Bassuk (Harvard Business Review, October 11, 2017) a good reminder at the start of the year. Link here

Alicia Bassuk analyses seven work situations and offers a few phrases to keep in your sleeve, when you have to say “no” or someone takes credit for your work/idea or you need to push back on a decision you believe is wrong.

I would like to add a situation from my experience: when someone is giving you credit for something you/your colleagues did not do. They might be misinformed or trying to add to your workload.

Response: Thank you for giving credit to me/my colleague for this, which we cannot accept. As it stands, … (bring in facts, numbers). Then, depending on the reason behind, say We all learned from it. Can we work through it together? (if their aim is to unload the work on your team) Or direct the person to the team in charge (if they were misinformed).



Networking in projects

“How good are you at establishing relations with the project sponsor and partners?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews for project manager’s position. And rightly so.

In time, I learned that the “establishing” was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network takes time and effort.

As a preschooler, my best class buddy was the teacher’s son, Andrei. I do not remember how we became best friends, but I remember our relationship and the benefits of this connection. It was particularly helpful at discipline time. “if you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the potty class” was the harshest teacher’s penalty on earth for us. Us, 5 year old! to spend time with the pre-nursery kids?! Harsh, indeed. In times of such menace, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s reprimand). “Ok, you two, go back to the class room. The rest – to the potty class”. You can say that I knew her bias towards her son and used it. True, that helps too.

Networking is beautiful. It can also be dirty. It can save the project. It can also kill it.

There are internal networks and there are external networks.

There are “must networks” and optional networks.

There are visible networks and invisible, yet present networks. Some call them formal and informal.

It is up to the project team to choose what works best in each case.

Be smart about your choices. Be selective in prioritizing networks. The consequences will be on the project and rarely on the network.

You have to be comfortable with networking. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that some of us feel morally ‘dirty’ when we network, because we act in ways that we can’t justify, schmoozing people for our own gain. I found a sort of golden middle – doing it for the sake and benefit of the project changes the feeling and perspective.

Case #1.

– May I introduce you Oxana, the project manager. She was kissed by the minister the other day, my boss introduced me to the new member of the team, a former minister himself.

The story showed how much my boss appreciated networking abilities to the benefit of the project. The greeting by kissing was symbolic of it. My boss had many reasons to highlight the incident. It was a flagship multi million project with many high level beneficiaries. It was not all roses and not since the beginning. The initial mistake was to let the project live in a bubble. Or rather in many bubbles, as each team member was networking it his/her own way. The lead partner was forgotten and no one took care of it. Opening the bubbles was painful yet necessary. Investing in networking with the lead partner was the way to show the good things done by the project as a whole.

And it had to be done by the project manager, for the sake of uniform approaches and leveling the accountability to the beneficiaries. It had also to be done gradually, so that the mutually beneficial sense in all concerned was built step by step.

The prior networking work done by individual members of the team at their level and in their respective fields was paramount. It brought the positive pressure from its many outside partners, who were able to testify in front of its main beneficiaries to the successful delivery of products and services.

Case # 2

Informal networks can help, but be aware of their limitations.

A project had a number of project partners with equal voting rights in the project’s board. One of partners had an issue with a team member, which escalated into an open conflict. The team member used personal informal connections to neutralise the unhappy committee member. It worked, in the short-term. Yet, in medium term, it made the partner feel cornered and only provided an excuse for an open attack, at a time of project vulnerability. The cost of informal networks proved too high and the solution was to gain the respective partner over with patience, persuasion and persistence.

Conflict. Bring it on?

– Conflict is good, my junior colleague said to me on our way to an important meeting. He just read an article in HBR.

I wondered if he meant conflict in the team or with the client. It could have been on either fronts. Or even on both.

I did not pursue that conversation back then. I knew he was going through a tough period in his personal life and was looking for an excuse to vent his spleen. “Not on my watch”, I thought back then. Bringing personal conflict into professional life is a no win-win. Same is valid the other way around.

Let’s look at origin of the word: “conflict” com “with, together” (see con-) + fligere “to strike” (see afflict). Think about it.

Conflict happens quite often in projects. Some time it is avoidable. Sometimes, it is unavoidable. When it happens, there are things to do or abstain from. It depends on a series of factors, among which I would consider the following:

1. The origin of conflict

Different priorities, incompatible communication styles, unclear roles or a lack of trust are often at the root of conflict between team members. Unmet expectations, exceeded budget, unmet objectives or deadlines can generate conflicts with the project sponsor or contractors.

2. The parties to conflict

Conflicts happen between team members, with the project’s sponsor or contractors.

3. The objective of the conflict or what are the parties after.

Some just love to live in a perpetual conflictual state with no positive objective in mind. Some want to bring to the surface things, which are not seen as positive or beneficial for the project or a party concerned.

Depending on the answers to the above, a conflict management strategy has to be put in place. It has to be managed, otherwise it will manage the project right into failure or difficulties.

There is plenty of literature on approaches to manage conflict. Here are a number of my observations as a project manager over a number of years in a number of projects:

1. Start with checking your assumptions about the origin of the conflict and the purpose of parties concerned. Do not be mislead and do not mislead.

2. Look for common ground. For example, the project sponsor wants more visibility and threatens to cut funds. At the same time, the project team is reluctant to go “public” and feels unappreciated. A common ground could be to present the visibility requirement of the sponsor as an opportunity to do justice to the project team’s work.

3. Keep your head and stay neutral, the same way Switzerland preserves hers. Avoid at all costs taking sides, unless there is blatant injustice to any of the parties concerned. For example, a team assistant blaming the driver for a failure of the translation equipment and putting at risk the entire event. A good conflict management strategy in this case is to talk to all concerned and find out what happened exactly and ask both of them to read again their respective job descriptions. Designing a standard operating event management procedure and/or an event preparation check list helps to prevent potential future conflicts.

Integrity in projects: Receiving gifts

integrity image

“Oxana, the boxes of chocolate and tea are more for you”, read the email I received from the big boss of the organisation I worked for. It was after a meeting between top management and the project team. One of the consultants on the team offered to the chair of the meeting the famous chocolate.

“Thank you very much. I’ll pick them up and open the boxes for everyone to enjoy in the coffee/kitchen room” was my immediate response. I knew the ethics rules this Organisation had. And I was committed to apply them.

It was also an example for other team members who were puzzled at the meeting and watchful of management reaction.

A box of chocolate is a small thing, right? the temptation jumps in. Better check your client’s and your organization’s policies on Receiving gifts. If you are a free-lancer, check your professional quarters’ guidelines. PMI for example,

Some guidelines are more gifts-tolerant and set a maximum value for gifts which can be accepted. They range from USD 30 or equivalent (UNDP) to 100 Euro of equivalent (Council of Europe). More important than the value are the intention and or perception of influence that gifts may carry. Some Organisations are outright intolerant to gifts, regardless of the value and source, in particular for staff involved in procurement. As project managers, we are involved in procurement.

I’ve seen guidelines which contain a permission to accept gifts, which otherwise would be insulting to the offerer, for cultural or local customs reasons. In such a case, the gift shall be immediately disclosed and transferred for a decision to management.

Once in Ukraine, at a dinner paid by the project at the end of the project, I was offered two traditional cakes by the client. I declined politely. “We know it is below the value of gifts you can accept. We checked.”, they insisted. “I will pass it to my colleagues in the local office, to enjoy, as a token of your appreciation”, was my response. And so I did the next morning.

If I cannot refuse the gift, I make sure that offerer understands that I act in accordance with the gifts receiving policies I abide by and that I accept it on behalf of the team. And I share it with the team: be it a box of chocolate, traditional sweets, a bottle of spirits, an invitation to a cultural event, a tour, etc. I know it is given to me only because I am on this project and I am already paid for doing my job.

Some Guidelines prohibit gifts from certain sources: Government, for example, or vendors, as these carry the risk of being seen as a “down payment” for a future favour on behalf of the organisation/company you work for. Money gifts are a No in literally all professional conduct guidelines I saw. No explanation as to why is necessary.

“What about gifts post-project?” you may ask. I can only congratulate you for having succeeded to transform a business relation into a friendship. Nevertheless, I would be watchful over how much time elapsed after the project, if you are not in a new project design phase and if no strings are attached from either side.

Keep it professional and maintain your integrity watchful!

From the series “Integrity in project management”. To be continued.

Gender mainstreaming in projects: a case study

Project A was designed to respond to institutional strengthening needs of an association of professionals – let’s call it Stars Alliance – and to contribute to improving the quality of the profession. Gender mainstreaming was included in the Project’s Work plan as a cross-cutting theme, yet its practical implication remained to be investigated and followed-up. The Project indicators were not gender-disaggregated at the start of the Project.

During its inception phase, the Project team used the stakeholders’ analysis to understand their roles, needs and situation. At the start of the Project, 30% of the Stars Alliance members were women. Yet, there were no women on its board and there were less than 10% of them in other internal management committees. Women have organised themselves into an association, let’s call it WLA.

WLA was established in March 2015 by 8 women lawyers. It was a young and small association with high aspirations to promote gender equality both within Stars Alliance and on the legal services market. The WLA was marginalised within the Alliance and its voice was weak. None of its initiatives, including gaining equal treatment of women professionals within social security, were supported by the Alliance.

The Project’s Stakeholders Analysis increased the understanding that for the gender mainstreaming to be successful, the WLA voice had to be heard and its capacity had to be strengthened. Moreover, including WLA in the Project meant that it would have the same effects and impact on men and women, both at the level of capacity and skills. A number of gender sensitive indicators were introduced, for example the number of women in the Bar pool of trainers; the number of women candidates to management positions and the number of women elected/selected in management committees.

Thus, the Project team pursued a pro-active role in involving WLA in the Project. The Project insisted on including WLA in all consultations organised to prepare the Stars Alliance Management Road Map, draft it organisational Strategy for 2017-2022 and its Communication Strategy. The Project also included consistently WLA representatives in all Project workshops, conference and seminars, breaking down little by little the isolation previously experienced. WLA was also included in the Project’s Steering Committee enabling the organization to make contributions and participate in decision making.

In addition to that, the Project implemented a number of activities designed specifically to strengthen WLA capacity as an organization.  As a result of these, WLA prepared its own Strategy for 2018-2023, started to collaborate with a similar organisation at the European level, organised its general assembly on a regular basis, multiplied by ten the number of its members, gained space on the Alliance website (where it can regularly publish its news and make itself visible and heard); presented an alternative report on women rights situation in the country at the UN Committee for Social, Economic and Cultural rights in Geneva.

All of the above contributed to making the WLA voice heard within the Alliance and externally, empowering it to take gender mainstreaming forward to the benefit of the  profession.

The Project’s approach to increase the capacity of WLA brought two lessons learned:

a. the Project had to be ready to mitigate risks of occasional disengagement from the Alliance management in Project activities, when WLA lead-activities were perceived as challenging to the institutional culture that existed since its establishment.

b. helping WLA to form partnerships – e.g. with the European women professional associations – was an important part of the sustainability of the action, as it anchored it in a network of organisations, which share similar challenges and aspirations.