Raise your hands if you heard or saw of a project planned and managed only by an almighty project manager. None, is my assumption. However great and seasoned and brilliant … Continue reading Project Teams
I was on a library when I got a phone call from a client across the ocean who wanted my services for a project’s monitoring and evaluation assignment. I knew … Continue reading “Successful Project Management” by Trevor L Young
The head of a Project Management Office found this email in his Inbox one lovely morning:
thanks for putting together a great project team.
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.
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.
Leaving aside the debate around copyright, profits, research and education, this post is about putting what you know best to a public good. Be ready that not everyone will have the same understanding as you of ‘public good’. See, for example, what happens when a graduate student from Kazakhstan tries to give academic journals a Napster moment? -via Washington Post, EurasiaNet and Open Society Foundations https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/this-student-put-50-million-stolen-research-articles-online-and-theyre-free/2016/03/30/7714ffb4-eaf7-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html
This is grand, I can hear you say. It can be small, yet significant. I was at first surprised myself when i put my project management skills to use in support of an organisation whose mission is dear to my heart. It is called Diaconia, http://www.diaconia.md and it is located in Moldova. One of its projects is called “The social apartment”, a home to 6-7 girls for 9 months in their transition from state run orphanages to independence. It gives them basic life skills and training at a vocational school to help them secure a job upon graduation. Each of these girls comes with a story where abandonment, violence and neglect ruled their lives until the moment they entered the Social Apartment.
This inspired my “Martisor project” (it would be called “background” in a formal project environment). Martisor is a sign of Spring in Moldova (and Romania and Bulgaria). Martisor and Spring are associated in our culture with hope and rebirth.
My project document looked simple: the general objective of the project was to make the Organisation, Diaconia, in this case, known beyond the borders of the country it operates in. The specific objective was to collect funds. To achieve those, i applied networking skills – to get contact people on both sides; financial management skills for budgeting and payments; organisation skills to get 200 martisors delivered 2000 km away; and communication skills to pass the message. In 4 weeks, the project’s objectives were achieved. Representatives of 47 states got to know the organisation. The return on investment was 250%. With money collected, the bathroom in the apartment was fully equipped and furnished. It was a labourous and intense project for the girls who crafted the beautiful Spring signs. It was also a pilot project for Diaconia and me- a Europe-wide Martisor for a safe transition into independence for hundreds of orphanage-graduates next year perhaps?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!