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!

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.


Training: here we come again

We learned from Harvard Business Review, that in 2018 U.S. companies spent roughly USD 90 Billion on learning and development. Some entire countries only aspire to reach that amount of GDP. According to the same source, the average American employee received training at a cost of around USD 1,000 per person. For a company of 50,000 employees, that’s an annual USD 50 million per year.

In development projects, capacity building and training are often an intrinsic part of the intervention. Question about the efficiency and effectiveness of the investment in training  are not new. Yet, the answers continue to come with delay or in part only. Tax- payers want to know what changes are brought by development money. What changed for victims of violence after police officers or social workers were trained in country X?

Back to the private sector, a survey in the U.S. among 1,500 executives found that one in five organisations do nothing to measure the impact of trainings.  Of those that do, only 13% calculate quantifiable results. I have yet to see similar data on development projects.

Measuring the impact of trainings is often seen as an extra activity, which is not part of the scope of the project. There are reasons for that. There are also good arguments for revisiting that view. Measuring the impact of the training will show where, when and what kind of training is needed in the context the project works in. This will maximise the effect and support the sustainability of the capacity building.

To measure the impact of trainings in projects, specific activities can be introduced at a number of levels at certain intervals. The Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation is a useful tool. According to this model, the training can be evaluated at four levels:

  1. reaction (post-training evaluation by participants);
  2. learning (knowledge and skills acquired at the training);
  3. behavior and job performance changes after the training;
  4. impact on the performance of the entity/organization.

For 1 and 2 pre and post-training questionnaires are appropriate. For 3 and 4, co-operation with the client’s organisation will be necessary. Some organisations have performance management systems, where recommendations for training and post-training follow-up on skills’ upgrade are included.

For further inspiration:

Data based on “You learn best when you learn less” by Laszlo Bock, 17 June 2019, Harvard Business Review.

“An investigation into the relationship between training evaluation and the transfer of training” by Alan M. Saks and Lisa A. Burke, in International Journal of Training and Development 16:2

Communication: revisited

A coach once explained the five attributes of communication in this way:

A. Consciousness communication: words have consequences; choose them wisely;

B. Free communication: people are free to express themselves; it would lead other wise to frustration and conflicts;

C. Expressive communication: the tone, the posture, the face expression are all part of communication;

D. Mutual communication: treat others as you’d like to be treated; use active listening;

E. Efficient communication: be clear, precise, use facts.

Before any communication:

  • inform yourself,
  • show recognition and
  • frame the relationship.

“Communication is my middle name” I often say at the first meeting with a new project team. It’s my pledge for a positive working environment, a pre-requisite for any project success. I am not always 100% on it but I am continuously committed. I also ask trusted team members to tell me when I am not.

I found the following tool useful for navigating the different communication styles and their consequences on relationships (credit Psychology Tools):

assertive comm

Nr 1 ability of a project manager

If there would be only one ability of a project manager I would choose from it would be resourcefulness. Resourcefulness is the ability to explore options, connect dots, step outside the comfort zone and think outside the box. It is to find water in a place others call “desert”.

Yes, projects are resources based. They have human and financial resources, and they are often seen as scarce. You know the story: not enough budget, not enough people, not enough time, not enough of something else …

Resourcefulness is connected to the mind set. The mindset is usually of scarcity or abundance. Some call it a “growth mindset”. See also “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” from Harvard Business Review 

In Romanian, we say “Fa rai din ce ai” – make haven from what you have. Sure, there can be times when you genuinely think things through and still can’t find a solution. Yet, often just taking a step back, changing the perspective, will open the road to the solution. There is always a source of information to access, a door to knock on, a dormant budget line, a collaborative hand, an expertise to reach, even a chance remark by someone we value. It might be as simple as saying STOP to excuses and justifications, for a start.

If you need a change of perspective, there are a number of techniques in the world of psychology to acknowledge, validate and reframe how you see a situation. You can take a break and watch “Sing” – the part in which Buster Moon turned the ruins of his theater into the greatest show in the town.

Case in point

When I started working on a project, it was at month 18 and had 6 more months to end date. It had of number of symptoms of a troubled project. The delivery rate was 50%. A number of milestones were not achieved and unfinished tasks “rejoiced” in the backlog.

The organisation had only a national consultant on the ground and no other support staff in the country the project had to be implemented, 6000 km away from headquarters. Each deliverable was painful for those who organized it before me. At that rate, we could have as well closed the project upfront.

A quick review of the modus operandi made me realise the biggest bottleneck was linked to the organisation of events in the country. Each activity required a venue, transportation, catering, interpretation, translation, printing, accommodation for consultants. Performed individually, these tasks ate up all of the previous project managers’ time and efforts.

The solution was an events management company to deal with all the logistics on the ground. A tender was organised to choose the best value for money on the market. Once the contract with the winner was signed, the project team was able to fully focus on the content and milestones of the project.

As a result, the delivery rate increased in 5 months to 85 percent of the budget, all products were delivered and the project’s objective – achieved. All – to the clients and donor’s satisfaction.

Meez: advice from a chef to a project manager

Meez comes from ‘mise en place” known to chefs and kitchen staff. Renown chef Anthony Bourdain was caught saying “we do not dare so much as boil hot water without attending to a ritual that is essential for any self-respecting chef: mise-en-place”.

The French “Mise en place” means “everything is in its place”.

True for any self-respecting chef. True for any self-respecting project manager.

Meez in any project means that time is precious.

Project resources are precious.

Your self-respect and the respect of others are precious.

And a self-respecting project manager owns it to him/herself, to the project team and the client.

A chef will imagine a plan for a meal he/she is about to make before they begin. The plan will include the tools, equipment, delivery of products time, ingredients and their proportion, size of plates and even their temperature.61156297_2438451669528066_5056950135611719680_n

A project manager will create an action plan then a work breakdown structure. It will show what, who, when, for how long, how much budget is necessary to deliver the product/service to the client.

You’ll know how rigorous is the project manager if he/she has in place the team, needs assessments, the feasibility study results, the work plan, the procurement plan, the clearances/permits and other pre-requisites before the project starts.

Meez is gold. “Time spent on preparation saves time on implementation” remains a golden rule in project management.





Red flags in project procurement

Development management projects (and not only) often involve procurement. Goods, works and services are necessary for the achievement of a change supported by the project.  Usually, procurements are managed by project managers. In some organisations, project managers are assisted by specialised procurement services.

Procurements of goods, services and works differ by scope and complexity and require different control structures. Procurements serve the purpose of accountability to donors and the principles of the open competition. Procurement policies shall offer a fit-for-purpose framework and value-for-money spent.

To prevent damages from ill managed procurements – financial and reputational – there are a number of checks to be made and safeguards to be put in place before and during the procurement. Check your organisation’s rules and procedures on that. This will help prevent any eventual red flags, such as single bidding, for example, or unusually big differences between bids.


Each project cycle requires a number of checks in place for a transparent and fraud free procurement. Here is a selection of some, from my experience and the experience of a number of teams I worked with:

A. Needs identification:

  • Include a wide variety of stakeholders in the needs identification and selection to prevent capture and undue influence from certain entities;
  • Put in place or revisit your conflict of interest policy;
  • Protect confidential information and prevent insider trading.

B. Publication:

  • Design merit based appraisal criteria;
  • Choose the financial and other criteria wisely;
  • Publish the tender with clear appraisal criteria, procedures and terms;
  • Ensure the publicity of the tender to a wide public;
  • Give sufficient time for tendering;
  • Be clear about the documents required to be submitted in support of the tender;
  • Do not split contracts to avoid the competition/tendering.

C. Evaluation of the tender:

  • Follow with rigour the established criteria as published;
  • Ensure the members of the evaluation group are free of conflict of interest; manage the conflict of interest;
  • Document the evaluation process;
  • Get the approval of the tender board to contract the winning bidder(s).

D. Implementation:

  • Monitor the contractor’s obligations through reports and invoices audit;
  • Prevent and/or avoid substantial renegotiations of contractual terms;
  • Perform on-site visits to confirm the quality and quality of works, services and goods.

There is also the evaluation and audit stage, which might not be in the direct and immediate project manager’s realm. Yet, the project manager needs to remain alert, in particular, if/when any of the above stages give rise to red flags.

If you interest in other or additional related aspects,