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!

Books, external views and why they matter in projects

Last month I went to the presentation of the book entitled “Moldova at the crossroads between worlds“, written by the Honorary Senator, Honorary member of PACE, Josette Durrieu and Science Po Paris Professor, Researcher Associate HEC, Florent Permentier.

I will not go into the content of the book. That deserves a separate post. I have collected a number of take aways of a different nature valid for the project management practice:

1. It is always refreshing to look at things/places/processes you know (or you think you know) through external eyes. It is a good tip to remember when going trough projects’ assumptions. It is equally valuable valuable to peer review projects proposals, for an external view.

2. Bringing in testimonials of those who lived through the times described in the book enriches (would have, in this case) the discussion. It is what we call “inclusive stakeholders’ discussion” and respect for diversity in project management.

3. What is the motivation behind those external eyes is as important at the cover of the book/report. We know what they say about the cover of the book. Also, as Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist, puts it “Motives are rarely straightforward”. In project’s design, assumptions about stakeholders’ motivation can make or break a project. Also, the legitimacy of sources of info is paramount.

4. The past is important. So, are lessons learned. Yet, these alone are not predictive of what the future holds in store. This is important to remember in development management in what we call “the era of disruption”.

This book presentation reminded me of the book I proudly contributed to in 2004 together with a group of co-national and international authors – “The EU and Moldova. On a fault-line of Europe” (London: Federal Trust for Education and Research, edited by Ann Lewis).

Words. Not just words

Over the years I noticed a number of phrases we say to each other within the team and the implications they had. It gets down to social awareness, an EQ skill. Sometimes the best of intentions can turn into unwanted results.

The choice of words is as important as the person we address. Subtle implications can make or break a relationship or the desire for future interaction, both in professional and personal set-ups.

Here are some of examples I collected over the years:

“You are too good for that job/position/team”. Instead of an implied criticism, offer support, with some enthusiasm. “Their loss” with the right tone of the voice can work better.

“You always…” or “You never …” said particularly during annual performance reviews. Instead of making people defensive and closed off to your message, simply point out the consequences of their action/lack of action on your time/worload, preferably, everytime it happens. “It seems like you do this often” or “You do this often enough for me to notice” is an opening to finding a solution.

“As I said before” or “As it should have been clear from my previous message/email”. It is clearly a question of how well you communicated initially/previously. So, rephrase, make it more interesting, catchy so that it stays with your receiver. The efficiency of the receiver depends on the efficiency of the source.

“You look tired” vs “Is everything okay?” Instead of assuming, try to ask.

“Good luck” (depending on the tone) carries a doubt in the persons ability. Cast your confidence instead: “You have what it takes” or “You’ll manage, as you’ve done on so many occasions”.

“It’s up to you” or “Whatever” or “Whatever you want” implies indifference and/or desire  to be serviable. Instead, offer a number of options: “I have no strong opinion either way, yet a couple of considerations to bring to the table are …”

“This is a miscommunication” assigns the blame and puts the interlocutor into the defensive mode. Instead say “From our previous communication, my understanding was that …”. It will open the door and help clarify the misunderstanding. Sometimes saying “I am sorry” makes you own your mistake and the respect of others by bringing the talk back into the calm waters.

“I challenge that” is a sure way to put a person into an open fight mode or into a defensive mood. Instead “I would like to bring to the table another perspective” takes the heat out and offers an inclusive and respectful way of dealing with an issue.

Once you become aware of the effects the words have, your communication and relationships will improve. And that is key in any project team.





The beauty of project’s dashboards

Imagine driving your car without a dashboard. Or flying a plane without it.

Now look at the project you manage. What does your project dashboard show you? Does it give you info and data to know if the project is on track; milestones are achieved on time; costs are under control? Which colours of the traffic lights dominate? Perhaps, it looks like this (for a bit of amusement): img_2099

Many project management programmes/softwares have built-in dashboard functions. A click here, a click there – and you and the project’s sponsor have it all on one page and/or on the screen. Nice and neat.

If you do not have AI to do it for you, use excel to create a project dashboard. It can serve as a monitoring, communication and reporting tool. It will show the up-to-date status of the project and you can take it out of your sleeve anytime needed for a meeting or report. You can even turn some of the data into a nice infographic and place it on the website of the project/the intranet page. This can be very handy as not all sponsors’ (and even project managers) enjoy reading a Gantt chart.

To build a dashboard, determine which data is essential. In development management projects, this data comes from the donor’s reporting requirements and/or project board needs. In internal projects, the requirements for a Project Status Report serve well that purpose. Checking with the project’s sponsor what essential info they need on the project helps as well.

The following elements are for illustrative purposes and need to be adapted to each project:

  • the list of milestones to be completed since the last report and their current status (on time or delayed);
  • the list of milestones due in the next reporting period;
  • commitment of resources;
  • costs to date compared to budget;
  • number of beneficiaries reached/trained;
  • number of deliverables produced;
  • days to go live;
  • any necessary disaggregated data (by gender, regions, products, departments, for example).

I also found the following tips for dashboard’s design helpful:

  • choose 2-3 colours;
  • follow minimalism rather than art nouveau in visuals;
  • keep it on one page;
  • make sure everything is readable (avoid small print);
  • if it is necessary to be descriptive, accompany the dashboard with a project status report.





Performance metrix

“We cannot measure it. Our project is too technical” or “too specific” or too something else can unfortunately be heard in some development management circles.

Scientists say “if you cannot measure it, it does not exist”. Development management is about change (positive, preferably). So if we cannot measure change, it does not exist. Now, let’s go with that to the Project’s Board or, even better, the project’s beneficiaries. Yes, right…

Developing, agreeing on and monitoring project’s indicators is not an easy fix. It is a necessity. All stakeholders need to know and see the progress towards the objective of the project. It is true that in development projects we deal with institutions (in the sense of an established law or practice) and concepts, such as governance, corruption, transparency, accountability, empowerment, access to justice. Thanks to extensive research over the last two decades+ and due to efforts of organisations such as the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Freedom House, Council of Europe (through its Commission for the Efficiency of Justice), OECD and many more it is possible to measure. These institutions are no longer abstract concepts they have dimensions we can grasp, measure and report on. Let’s look at the six dimensions of the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) of the World Bank:

  1. Voice and Accountability: measuring political, civil and human rights;
  2. Political Stability and Absence of Violence: measuring the likelihood of violent threats to, or changes in, government, including terrorism;
  3. Government Effectiveness: measuring the competence of the bureaucracy and the quality of public service delivery;
  4. Regulatory Quality: measuring the incidence of market-unfriendly policies;
  5. Rule of Law: measuring the quality of contract enforcement, the police, and the courts as well as the likelihood of crimes and violence;
  6. Control of Corruption: measuring the exercise of public power for private gain, including both petty and grand corruption and state capture.

When you start to develop a project, I learned how important it is to give to the performance metrix the time and effort it deserves. My experience helped me put together a couple of road signs in this respect, which I share below:

a. Identifying, selecting and agreeing on project progress indicators is a collective exercise and should be done in a participatory and inclusive way.

b. Discharge things you cannot measure or, if you are keen on them,  double check on them during the inception phase of the project.

c. Use data already available from credible sources. Creating your own set of data and measurement tools is costly and time consuming.

d. If there is no data and the project absolutely needs a tailor made measuring stick, make sure to budget for it.

e. For measurements designed specifically for the project, make sure you take the measures (right) at the project start. It will give you a reliable baseline.

f. Regularly monitor progress for signs of trouble or delays. Use your performance metrix as a tool. It can help you “measure twice, cut – once”, as illustrated by the old adage, or “measure constantly, optimize continuously”, as the context of your project demands it.

g. And perhaps, the most important the performance metrix serves the achievement of the project objective (and not interests or circumstances).

Post inspired by: “Myths and Realities of Governance and Corruption”, by Daniel Kaufmann World Bank,

“Kaufmann, Daniel; Kraay, Aart; Mastruzzi, Massimo. 2007. Measuring Corruption : Myths and Realities. Africa Region Findings & Good Practice Infobriefs; no. 273. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”

The strengths of an introverted project manager

I am an ambivert. At times, I charge my energy battery from being with and among people. At other times, I need to go within to recharge. I can talk, walk and gesture in a meeting to make a point I care about. In other instances, I can feel glued to my chair with my lips sealed.

For an introvert, projects’ dynamics can be merciless. Projects are team based, hence charged with the intensity of the human interaction. Times to recharge are postponed and tensions mount. It seems an ideal environment for extroverts, who thrive in a busy environment. Yet, not all of us are 100% extroverts in this line of business. Overall, 40% to 60% of the workforce are introverts. Look around the meeting room next time 🙂 .

Thanks to research, my own and other people’s experience I designed a strategy for my inner introvert, when her majesty decides it is time to reign.

The strategy has two parts:

First, I noted down a keepsake list of strengths to remind myself from time to time. Even if not on display, introverts have many valuable strengths. You can create your own list.

Secondly, I created a prep plan, with road signs for times when it feels like the project is on a rollercoaster. I am happy to share some of its elements. Again, feel free to create your own plan.

The above was inspired by Jennifer Kahnweiler, PhD, author of the book “Quiet Influence. The introvert’s guide to making a difference”.

Unethical Behavior? The psychology behind

“Playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the CEO’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the boss to cheat a little, it’s easy for subordinates to rationalize similar behavior.” (Warren Buffet, Letter to Shareholders, 2018).

Paraphrasing the above in the project management context: playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the project manager’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the project manager to cheat a little, it’s easy for team members to rationalise similar behaviour.

Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort explains the psychology behind unethical behaviour in her article published in Harvard Business Review (12 April 2019). I very much recommend to read the article. It raises the awareness of own behaviour and explains others’ behaviour next time you find yourself in an environment prone to unethical démarches.

As Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort puts it “three psychological dynamics  lead to crossing ethical lines. First, there’s omnipotence: when someone feels so aggrandized and entitled that they believe the rules of decent behavior don’t apply to them. Second, we have cultural numbness: when others play along and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking of more immediate rewards such as staying on a good footing with the powerful.”

In project management, your “audience” is neither experts of any sorts nor politicians/commentators. Your audience are the tax-payers (in development management) or the shareholders. The numbers that flow up to you as a project manager should be the ones you send on to those who gave you the money to implement the project. They send auditors to attest to that. The above applies not only to money. It also applies to relationships with stakeholders; communication with the public; rewards for team members and many other aspects of project management.

Case in point:

Upon arrival on the team as a new project manager, Avril (not real name) learns that the donor will send an audit in two months. The last financial report raised a number of questions. She realised the report was made to match the numbers and did not reflect accurately the actual spending. Avril knew the report was done to please the previous project manager, who believed the rules of accountability do not apply to him (omnipotence). After discussing it with the financial assistant, it became clear that the later admired the project manager (cultural numbness) and played along (justified neglect).

Avril prepared all the supporting documents required by the auditors in advance. Upon the arrival of the auditors in the morning of the appointed day, she acknowledged the mistakes made in calculations, exchange rates and the like. There was nothing to hide and the numbers had to be corrected before the final financial report. The auditor tuned in Avril’s readiness to correct it with “you are glad we are here”.

As a result, the implementing organisation was spared of the need to repay a six figure amount and the reputation of the project was restored.

Ivan/Getty Images

When facing a conflict: advice from a coach

A team member rushes into your office, breathless and emotional. Words pour in. You try to respond. Another avalanche follows. You have 5 seconds to choose your conflict management strategy.

Here are few tips a coach shared with me, to invest in healthy relationships at work:

  • Focus on your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.
  • Adopt a neutral posture. Watch your body language.
  • Postpone the discussion if you cannot manage the situation.
  • If you can manage the situation, then listen.
  • Say “I know”, if you know. Or “it is possible”, if you do not know.
  • Use the broke record technique – keep going with “I know”/”It’s possible” until the spirits calm down.
  • Adapt a neutral attitude: stick to facts, leave emotions out, focus on “Let’s find a solution”.
  • Use re-phrasing “Did I get it right that X and Y….?”
  • If the atmosphere is still hot, express feelings and allow the other person to do the same. Explain with calm the consequences on the person(s) concerned and the project: “Your late delivery of the product, made the test team anxious about them meeting the deadline set by the Board. They want to solve this, together with you”.
  • Do not accept victimisation and/or self-victimisation. Keep the dialogue at adult levels. Do not get into the game of people who live from conflict.
  • Find or agree to find a solution: (a) win-win, if possible; (b) compromise, as responsible adults; (c) agree to differ and come back latter; or (d) ask for help (management, Board, Human Resources, experts).
  • End on a positive note and make sure there are no hard feelings and unspoken messages as much as possible.