The glory of the project management glossary

The head of a Project Management Office found this email in his Inbox one lovely  morning:

“Dear Andrew,

thanks for putting together a great project team. img_0944

I have though a feeling there is an alien on the team. “Milestones”, “benchmarks”, “critical path”are only a few of the sounds coming out of his mouth that I was able to record. And there was something about something broken.

Please either send it with an interpreter or  just give it an user-friendly upgrade.

Thanks.

Nick

Sales”

Sounds familiar? The “alien” was the new project manager, with his shining  top-of-class graduation certificate, ready to impress. I easily recognise the junior-me in this “alien”. Believing i can impress with an ammunition of fancy terminology. It did not get me credibility. It only increased the gap between me and team members, partners and beneficiaries. The results were misunderstandings, miscommunication and other easily preventable issues.

It took me some years of practice to speak the audience language, for projects sake. And my job’s sake. Written project documents are still loyal to the fancy project management glossary.

It will make you feel as going back to ABCs. And rightly so. Your audience will appreciate it. Couple of examples:

I speak of

– Intended effects to explain “the project objective”.

– What the project intends to produce to explain “outputs”.

– The project To Do List to bring the “work breakdown structure” in the discussion (that broken something, Nick mentions in his email).

– The logical flow in a project’s life for communication and accountability when bringing in the “logframe”.

– Process documentation when bringing “logs” (communication log, risk log) into communication.

To explain my role, I say “I am the person who brings resources together to achieve the intended benefit within the timeframe of the project”. I thus became a less of an alien around the table. Although, sometimes it is fun to be an alien.

Drawing – courtesy of my daughter, Sofia.

 

What to expect: when taking over a project run by a colleague-friend

I have to say that I was never in such a situation. I witnessed a few such cases though in different work environments. Each case was pretty  specific, yet some general patterns were there. Here is Rosalia’s case: a young professional who was given responsibility beyond her experience, with the “bonus” of her work friendship at test.

Rosalia was booming when, upon return from a long vacation, she took over the project’s files.  She found out that she will be given this project two months ago.  Her best friend and colleague, Michael, left for another job in another country. Rosalia was very enthusiastic at first. She idealised her friend and everything he did so her usually active critical sense was put to sleep. Two months later she paid dearly with her health. Her joy soon turned into a depression fueled by a stream of difficulties. A surprise kept popping up after another. A consultant was paid for a product of unacceptable quality. A statutory evaluation was skipped with no explanations in the file. There were no contacts established with the project donor and the project was on its final stage. Large amounts of budget remained unpaid and the budget lines were guarded rigidly by the sponsor.

Could at least some of these have been prevented by knowing what to expect and preparing to act? A proper hand-over, to start with, would have given Rosalia a clear status quo. She did not  want to ask her friend any questions of fear to be perceived as challenging his authority. If you find yourself in such a situation, there a few strategies which you could try.

First, ask for a tri-lateral meeting with the departing project manager and your supervisor. It can be over coffee or another less formal set-up.  Follow-up the meeting with a note and send it to both to get confirmation on what you were told. It will give you a baseline and your friend will not feel as reporting to you.

Time permitting, organise a joint introductory meeting / a conference call (in case of teams located in different places), where both you and the departing project manager could participate. Follow the meeting with minutes circulated to all concerned.

Agree with your departing predecessor for how long and on what you estimate to still be needing to get back to him/her with questions you might have.

While friendships come in different forms and many complexities might arise, some of the above might allow to set the boundaries between personal and professional relations so that you can continue your friendship unaffected, to the extent you can. Sometimes you’ll have to choose. Sometimes you’ll have to compromise. It’s important not to compromise your professionalism though. A true friend will not ask you this.

Project assumptions:  national and international regulation of commercial activity – from will to done deal

Idealists among project managers are not a rare species. We want to fix it all, in one go, in a year and within a budget. We pencil in our partners support, commitment and will to respect human rights as firm assumptions. And we proceed, sometimes with a big noisy launching event. I, for one, am guilty on all above accounts.

It’s no news that projects operate in more and more complex environments. When events like the Bhopal industrial accident hit the global news, we start wondering about that complexity, and where on Earth are the traces of the good governance, corporate responsibility and rule of law. Then the question of where are our firm assumptions now crawls in. There are many views on events and project assumptions such as the above. Here are the two cents of mine:147470096

The degree of effectiveness of legal regulation of commercial activity is at the mercy of individual states. Given that the role of international law is still limited in this regard, those in countries with poor governance substantially remain disadvantaged in a global market.

The objectives at a project design phase would be to explore the development of the legal regulation of commercial activity on a national basis and consider the limitations of this for multinationals operating in a global market. The effectiveness of domestic legal regulation in this area needs to be considered, along with limitations of any international approach to the issue. The industrial accident in Bhopal and the extractive industry in Nigeria could be considered among relevant case studies.

Projects designed for Commercial activity have repercussions on fundamental human rights, including the ‘right to life’. More people are killed worldwide by industrial accidents and diseases each year (2.2 million) than are killed in wars (Slapper, 2011). With the progress of globalization the effectiveness of individual jurisdictional safeguards against crime, projects designs need to embed the understanding that financial malpractice and health and safety dangers become severely attenuated, because risk can be simply shifted to the jurisdiction of least resistance (idem). As a consequence, hazardous enterprises move into developing parts of the world, with daunting consequences. This was the case of the defective chemical plant in Bhopal.

The Bhopal case study is illustrative on a number of accounts, showing an interplay between projects and public policies.  It shows that such projects can have a far-reaching and detrimental impact on people and on the environment. It provides insights into Government and corporate behaviors, important for stakeholders analysis. The company in question was able to distance itself from the operations of its subsidiary in India. This was also possible due to a certain reluctance of and procrastination on behalf of the government to enforce laws against it in order to protect their citizens. The fear of discouraging inward investment on the part of multinationals was seemingly among factors explaining the government attitude.

The picture becomes even more complex due to a combination of legal, jurisdictional, political, diplomatic and commercial reasons for which the governments and courts of developed nations rarely hold multinationals based in their countries to account for their foreign misdeeds. The arrest of management with their subsequent release, officials’ press statements condemning the management were soft responses to a tragedy of such a scale. Overall, the success in holding those responsible legally accountable has been limited and adequate financial compensation for the victims has not been achieved in Bhopal case.

In such situations, the question whether the international community can provide more effective protection for the vulnerable through the implementation and enforcement of human rights obligations arises. Governments do adhere to international instruments and international organisations. The government of India was no exception in this case. The Indian government had acceded to the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1979 and so at the time of Bhopal the Indian authorities were in theory bound to ensure the implementation of the rights contained in these covenants. These rights include the right to life (Article 6 ICCPR), the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12 ICESCR) and the right to an effective remedy (Article 2 ICCPR). India committed to minimum standards for health and safety by being a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1922. These are all nicely articulated aspirations. The reality is that as it is ultimately the responsibility of each state to incorporate international human rights obligations into national law, and this can be a challenge for the governments of most nations. Political and economic considerations may drive courts and governments into exercising a fair degree of latitude in the implementation and enforcement of these rights, impacting the effectiveness of protection for future generations from the risks of another Bhopal.

The extractive industry is another area to dwell on the effectiveness of regulation of commercial activity. Leading economies rely on oil and gas and this renders oil and gas companies very powerful, leading to an asymmetric relationship between developing countries and these companies. In Nigeria, e.g., this asymmetry is further exacerbated by “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, endemic conflict (Amnesty International, 2009). Local communities have a double disadvantage: the tremendous wealth generated from oil is not benefiting them and they suffer from the resulting pollution caused by oil spills, dumping of waste and gas flaring. This kind of commercial activity impacts people’s ability to enjoy their livelihoods, as fishing and farming is affected, the soil is contaminated and thus many dimensions of human rights e.g. to health, to food, to water, to a healthy environment, to work get abused (Amao, 2011).

Community complaints were directed not only at the activities of corporations, but also at the government for not effectively protecting their interests as stakeholders and not controlling the multinational corporations in question (idem). The Government in his case was openly siding with the foreign oil companies (deploying military forces to protect their infrastructure and personnel e.g. in return for arms supplied for government security forces). Amnesty International in its 2009 report places the responsibility for the human, environmental and economic damage on the Nigerian government for failure to regulate the oil industry effectively despite the many statuts that potentially give the government the legal muscle to do so. The fact that the government is a partner of oil companies and benefits from their activities leaves people and communities without effective access to redress. Even the legal recourse to protest through the ballot box is more theoretical than real given that patronage, political clientelism and populism are underpinning the system in Nigeria (Oxfam, 2009). The government there needs to first meet basic governance prerequisites to be able to effectively protect its citizens. Greater transparency, operating systems and public institutions to monitor and ensure accountability, a free media are needed for a start. In such circumstances, corporations commitments to “comply with applicable laws and regulations … and… give proper regard to health, safety, security and the environment’ (Shell 2006:6) leave the door open to selectivity and allow them to escape oversight (Amao, 2011).

Nigeria signed the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It still does not lead to an automatic and effective enforcement of human rights, as in India’s case above.

States have the duty to protect human rights. It may be ideal, but still aspirational to conclude that government failure to enforce laws or to implement international human rights obligations does not diminish the expectation that corporations honor human rights. And these assumptions need to be subjected to close scrutiny in any related project.

My thanks to Rianne C. ten Veen for the inspiration in the WB822 course at The Open University.

„Fail-Safe Management: Five Rules to Avoid Project Failure” by Jody Zall Kusek and Marelize Goergens Prestidge

New to the job, I had a silent prayer in my head: “Please don’t let me fail”. This fear of failure was almost paralyzing. I only conquered it when i learned to learn from failures. It took a number of failures to get there. Then I learned that i am not alone thanks to a number of books, among which a World Bank publication i would like to share with you.

Fail safe mngt

The book gives insights into five rules the authors advise to follow for a fail-safe project management:

Rule 1. Make it about how.

Rule 2. Keep your champions close and your critics closer.

Rule 3. Informal networks matter – use them.

Rule 4. Unclog the pipes.

Rule 5. Build the ship as it sails.

This book is both a good acquisition and an inspiration. It might not be eye-opening on all accounts (as it depends on your level and extent of project management experience) but it still contains a number of important lessons to take away for mindful managers. Here are a couple of mine:

A. In many cases failure is „baked into” the project almost from the start by managers and team members who simply fail to be mindful of the details and who focus on avoiding the obvious problem spots that any project will face as it goes along.

B. „Build the ship as it sails” suggests to start on a smaller scale and pilot whenever possible. Keep learning.

C. The definition of success will vary, depending on who assesses it. Making a difference to people on the ground is a mark for projects making progress in development.

D. Regardless of whether the stakeholder is a champion or a critic, these relationships must be managed to avoid project failure (the book includes a tool to manage stakeholders relations).

***

It would be rather boring, I would say, to have a fail-proof project.  From time to time I let some failures occur. For a variety of reasons. One of not-so-distant-in -time failures of mine was to draft the project’s work plan based on an overly estimated partner’s commitment. An unexpected management change in the partner organisation demanded a serious rethinking of the implementation approach through for example resource- consuming  alliance building and bottom-up approaches. I have on my desk a brochure with the nice faces of the previous management of the partner to remind me not to let my over-optimistic outlook to take over pragmatism in project planning.

Failures are the learner’s best friends in projects life and in time i learned to identify and address them. Reasons for failures in projects are multiple and the approaches to deal with them differ. They therefore deserve a separate post, to which i’ll return. In the meantime, a fail-safe and learning rich project management!

A little bit of project management for charity events

I was once at a meeting with a royalty whose lifestyle is charity-driven. Her name is Marina Sturdza. Apart from curiosity about her past linked to a communist era, the audience got interested in her charity endeavours. A friend of mine asked her about how she approaches, organises and delivers charity events. All these are competencies of a project manager.  She offered the following very common-sense advice, which very much resonate with any project’s life cycle:

  •  watch your expenses to avoid spending more than collecting;
  • communicate well the reason the event is organized for;
  • follow-up and openly report after the event to build trust.

I also noted, from personal experience, that charity demands peculiarities from project managers.

During holidays, with the generosity spirit in the air, we see charity events popping up on our facebook pages, through email advertisements or friends’ invitations. I’ve made it a tradition, over the last years to organise something in support of the cause I adhere to. And to put my project management skills to work. These come down to resource identification, organisation of meetings, networking and communication.

Couple of mere examples: organise a group of friends of mine to craft Christmas decorations that were sold at a fair. Together with other nine groups we collected funds enough to support daily needs of 10 child-single mother couples for a year. A pretty good output. The next year I organised at my place a 5 o’clock tea with the objective of spreading the word about the cause of single mothers and collect funds. After the event, my guests made donations to the cause. It was an undisclosed amount. Purposefully. I wanted to preserve the intimacy of the moment, especially for those disappointed by charities in the past, an important sensitivity to bear in mind. Another year, I joined with friends of mine a charity event for about one hundred people gathered to craft hand-made toys to be sold at a fair to support a shelter for orphan single mothers. A friend of mine, to whom I am profoundly grateful for accompanying me at this event, called it ” finally, a fakes-free event, with humanity, from people to people”. An awesome outcome, i would say.

That dear friend of mine gave a perfect definition to a charity event that stays faithful to its objective. To stay true to my evaluation culture, i noted down couple of lessons I’ve collected on my charity events organization journey.
These events are about people you want to support. An individual, a group, a community. These are what we call “beneficiaries” in projects. Those organising and taking part in the event are mere means to an end (me included). Lavish charity dinners or galas are not my thing for this reason mainly.

charity events
I also got to learn something important in terms of sponsors and charity projects partners. It might happen that those with means might not necessarily be willing to be the means to an end referred to above. They might want to steal the spot light and let you down at the last moment after offers generously made but not honoured. There might be reasons for that I am not here to judge. It’s important to remember that the cause you support dearly might not instil the same enthusiasm in others. And it’s ok. We all support some causes, in one way or other.
Often the humblest person are more likely to respond to a call for contribution. It might be as simple as making a phone call that paper is accumulating in the office for recycling, knowing that these will allow napkins and toilet paper to be bought for those who cannot afford even these “benefits of civilization”. Or taking part in crafting Christmas decorations to be sold for a good cause.

Picture taken at Diaconia Christmas Charity Fair ‘From Mothers to Mothers”2013 /”De la mame pentru mame” Campaign. You can learn more about the organisation and the campaign here http://diaconia.md/?l=en