You’ve got mail: writing for action

“To: Mary, John, Peter

Subject: budget

28,72% total budget implemented… on what else can we spend money for?

A good day,

Laurence”

The email received no response. Nothing happened.  It could have been as well written to the saints Mary, John and Peter.

Early in project management I received a valuable advice, which I gladly share: the efficiency of the receiver depends on the efficiency of the sender.

Much of the communication in projects happens through emails. When there is no response to that important email of yours, you might want to revisit it and your email communication style.

Some believe that “it is a miracle that effective communication ever occurs” (Carol M.Lehman and Debbie D. Dufrene, Business Communication, 16th ed. South-Western, 2010). The good news is that miracles can be produced, through trial and error, more trial, more errors untill the silver lining is there.

I gladly share a few magic tricks which helped me improve my project communication, with the disclaimer that I am still learning and still improving. Break the it down and inspire people to act. How? Politely by
A. bringing the issue to their attention,

B. making them aware,

C. motivating them: inspire them to adhere,

D. involving them: make them accomplices.

In short, make them want to do what it needs to be done and give them means to do it. At length, from the sender side, he/she needs to adapt the attitude to the receiver, propose a clear and acceptable objective, structure the essence in solid ideas, use arguments to explain and convince, propose a concrete and precise action. The effect on the receiver is as follows: he/she is attracted by the format, the objective is of interest, he/she retains the essence and is persuaded by the argument and knows what he/she has to do.

***
Going back to the email above, an option would be:

“To: Mary, John, Peter

Subject: for Action: an interesting budget issue

Our Financial Department just shared the latest budget report, which we all received i trust. The project we are in charge of show at the moment a modest spending rate of nearly 30% at the beginning of its second year of implementation. Delivery is indeed not the only parameter according to which projects performance is assessed, yet it is an important one. For the Department and the sponsor. The target is still 95% by the end of the project implementation.

Please find attached a detailed report on areas where budget underspending is recorded. I suggest to meet tomorrow to agree together on a recovery plan. I trust each will  bring his/her proposals and updated work plans to the table for the project to reach the delivery target.

I remain available to answer any question and support you the best i can,

With thanks,

Laurence

You might know the Buddhist joke about the email: A zen student asked his master: “Is it okay to use email?” “Yes”, replied the master, “but with no attachments.”  Wishing all to see the silver lining both in attachments and detachment.

More tips: “How to Write Email with Military Precision” by Kabir Sehgal on https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-write-email-with-military-precision

Project cycle management: a seasons view

There are Four Seasons hotels. There is Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.  And the four seasons of a project. A project is born, it works and beneficiaries harvest. Pretty much alluding to Spring, Summer and Autumn. Sometimes Winters enter projects’ lives. It happens in “frozen” project. Although some may challenge that a frozen project is still a project. Or, if all gone according to plan, Winter is the season of evaluations and reflections. Or just plain hibernation to recharge batteries.
This is a metaphor for project cycle management. It is just a perspective to the by-the-book definition.

Project cycle management (also known as PCM) is the process of planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling of a project effectively and efficiently throughout its phases, from planning through execution then completion and review to achieve pre-defined objectives or satisfying the project stakeholder by producing the right deliverable at the right time, cost and quality, according to a classic definition.

Different methodologies speak of different phases/cycles and related tools. For example, in EuropeAid terminology the term project cycle management is used to describe decision-making procedures used during the life-cycle of a project (including key tasks, roles and responsibilities, key documents and decision options). You can read more https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/methodology-aid-delivery-methods-project-cycle-management-200403_en_2.pdf.

Some use the term “The Project Development Cycle”: the project begins, continues, ends and begins again. Some organisations manage their projects by the following 4 phases: initiation, planning, implementation, closure.

The PMBOK terminology refers to at least 3 phases in a project: initiation, intermediate, final.

The Project Cycle in the framework used by the World Bank includes the identification, preparation,appraisal, negotiation and approval, implementation and  evaluation phases.
At OECD, projects follow the identification, appraisal and detailed plan, implementation and monitoring and evaluation stages.

These are just couple of examples of different general frameworks applicable in different organisations. By all means, projects need to follow the sponsor/organisation’s rigours. Yet, finding your own perspective to look at the project’s life cycle in a simplified way, be it a seasons-view or any other view, is intended to make things easy for you and allow you to enjoy the process.  An accurately identified project’s season helps determine the right approaches and tools to design, plant, harvest or evaluate/mitigate.

What seasons do you see in this pic?

What all project managers want project assistants to know

and are too shy or too “busy” to say. 
This text comes with No obligation to subscribe. From either side. These are based purely on my observations and project assistants’ feedback i got over years. 

We are Sorry for being plain ignorant about what you do. The systems you process payments in, the logs you enter data in, the time it takes for the next in line to process our requests etc. We may act as we know it though. Do not hesitate to tell us about the impact (ex ante please) of these on project activities. You may get us listening if you tell us that it takes more than 24 hours to get a contract processed and approved by people beyond your control. 

We value you as gate keepers. You let what is important to get in and keep the rest respectfully out. If you have doubts about what’s important, just ask. Same is valid for info flowing off the project office. You may become privy to many internal situations, which need to remain internal. E.g. a notification about a consultant’s contract termination, interview panel debates, tender boards discussions. 

We love to delegate. Even those who denied it, agree off the record. Projects are complex beasts so knowing that we can “eat an elephant a bite at a time” is relieving. If we do not communicate the level and extent of delegation in a clear, concise and compeling way, tell us. 

We trust you and rely on you. This is why highest ethical standads of professional behaviour are expected. In case of doubts and dilemmas, just ask. Ask your project manager or Human Resources. You are part of the team so your reputation is the team’s reputation. The opposite is equally true. You are entitled to demand highest ethical standards from us. 

You are a project assistant, not a personal assistant. It is therefore ok to say No to any personal requests such as “make me coffee”, “call me a taxi to take me somewhere personal”, “order flowers for my wife/partner/girlfriend/boyfriend//mother/lover” and other alike. “Please, can you order a taxi, for us to get on time to the meeting” is a project matter. 

We may get into tough love if there is any danger or risk for the project. Try not to take it personally. It is usually short and a one time occurance, as any events in projects. If it gets into a tendency or shows signs of becoming permanent, tell us. If we do not listen, talk to Human Resources. 

We thank you for investing time and effort into your professional growth. Ask us or Human Resources about training opportunities. Ask for coaching or mentoring, if you feel that you need one. We may not be the best coaches or mentors, but we may know someone who fits the role. 

We have at least one thing in common: the word “project” in our job titles. This makes us accomplices. Whatever happens, you need to know that we got your back. Because it’s mutual. 

PM feat. PM

The story of a project with two project managers, who

– are on linear relationship within the organisation,

– have pretty much the same job description,

– share the time and energy of one assistant,

– work with the same client, but at different dynamics. One is there daily, at a phone call or walk-in distance, in the field, as it is called. The other is 2000 km away, visiting from time to time.Scenarios can differ. The questions remain: how to stay sane, enjoy the experience and bring the project to a succesful completion.


As in any work relationship, three things matter: professional communication, ethics and chemistry, as once put it my dear colleague Peter. Project work is no exception.
It is professionally expected and desirable to communicate well right from the beginning, aspiring to set an optimum framework. Sort of who does what and when. Sometimes it is possible to get it straight from the very beginning. E.g. I write the reports for the steering committee, you communicate with the beneficiaries; you do the welcoming remarks, I wrap-up the event. Sometimes, you take the situations as they come. E.g. you call the client and i follow-up with an email for the event’s invitations. The role of the project assistant is undeniably critical. He/she needs to always make sure both project managers get the same info at the same time.

It is ethical to create and project an image of equal effort and equal responsibility. No naming and shaming for whatever happens in the project. And projects can get pretty cheeky. It is important that your supervisors see that. It is critical that your partners and project beneficiaries see that. They will mirror your collaborative and cooperative style, we try so hard to teach them in development management. So, try to manage by example.

And, last but not least, the chemistry. It is either there or not. Although you can get inspiration from “Memoirs of a Geisha”, a historical novel by the American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. No, it is not a project management book, but gives plenty of inspiration on human interaction not requiring anything physical. Listen, communicate, exemplify loyalty to your job and profession.

Feat. is for harmony. Projects are no exception. If it still does not seem to work, choose a musical or any other “partners in crime” duet you both like to get inspiration. I like Eros Ramazzoti feat Anastasia.  

Try to make it work, at least for fun and for the opportunity of learning more about yourself. It will not always work. I admit, i try to practice what i post, to the extent i can. 

It is fun as you get to play the good guy-the bad guy game. Or allow yourself to disconnect, while on leave as you know that your partner-project manager has your back.