Tag: book review

Sharing is caring. About whom? About what?

– Oh, you have a new décor!

– Yes, Japanese. It is thanks to you!

– Me?

– You told me about Tanaka and I introduced it in my wellness center. My clients love it and my services are in high demand.

My heart rejoices. The dialogue was with my dear reflexologist – Joelle.

Sharing is caring is a buzz word. I hear it often around me.  How come? We live in the era when sharing is a click away, effortlessly. So, why is there more demand for sharing?

Perhaps it is this effortless share that makes it meaningless. Perhaps those with whom we share it – the public, friends, acquaintances – do not need it or do not see the value of it.

Sharing is caring, when we share a piece of bread and a hot meal with someone who is hungry. And sharing is something more. It is sharing with those who have a first for learning and knowledge.

Can we go back to public lectures? The times of Agora meetings are behind us and long forgotten, with a few exceptions, here and there in some Universities. And even if we are there, at the public lecture, our eyes are on the phone, finger scrolling down.

I came across the name of Karl Friston, the author of the free energy principle, the organising principle of all life and all intelligence. He avoids one-to-one human interaction and has no mobile phone. He is the most prolific author in any discipline – 85 publications in 2017 alone, i.e. a publication every four days.   He opposed the patenting of the statistical parametric mapping and this is how PET scans became widespread (source: https://www.wired.com/story/karl-friston-free-energy-principle-artificial-intelligence/?utm_source=MIT+Technology+Review&utm_campaign=403ce86738-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_11_15_11_44&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_997ed6f472-403ce86738-158060557). You get the point.

Next time I will hear the call ‘sharing is caring’, I will be sure to ask myself: when was it last time I stood in front of an audience of people eager to learn and shared my learning, so that it becomes everybody’s learning? Or produced something and gave it for free? Don’t hesitate to join!

Gender mainstreaming in projects: a case study

Project A was designed to respond to institutional strengthening needs of an association of professionals – let’s call it Stars Alliance – and to contribute to improving the quality of the profession. Gender mainstreaming was included in the Project’s Work plan as a cross-cutting theme, yet its practical implication remained to be investigated and followed-up. The Project indicators were not gender-disaggregated at the start of the Project.

During its inception phase, the Project team used the stakeholders’ analysis to understand their roles, needs and situation. At the start of the Project, 30% of the Stars Alliance members were women. Yet, there were no women on its board and there were less than 10% of them in other internal management committees. Women have organised themselves into an association, let’s call it WLA.

WLA was established in March 2015 by 8 women lawyers. It was a young and small association with high aspirations to promote gender equality both within Stars Alliance and on the legal services market. The WLA was marginalised within the Alliance and its voice was weak. None of its initiatives, including gaining equal treatment of women professionals within social security, were supported by the Alliance.

The Project’s Stakeholders Analysis increased the understanding that for the gender mainstreaming to be successful, the WLA voice had to be heard and its capacity had to be strengthened. Moreover, including WLA in the Project meant that it would have the same effects and impact on men and women, both at the level of capacity and skills. A number of gender sensitive indicators were introduced, for example the number of women in the Bar pool of trainers; the number of women candidates to management positions and the number of women elected/selected in management committees.

Thus, the Project team pursued a pro-active role in involving WLA in the Project. The Project insisted on including WLA in all consultations organised to prepare the Stars Alliance Management Road Map, draft it organisational Strategy for 2017-2022 and its Communication Strategy. The Project also included consistently WLA representatives in all Project workshops, conference and seminars, breaking down little by little the isolation previously experienced. WLA was also included in the Project’s Steering Committee enabling the organization to make contributions and participate in decision making.

In addition to that, the Project implemented a number of activities designed specifically to strengthen WLA capacity as an organization.  As a result of these, WLA prepared its own Strategy for 2018-2023, started to collaborate with a similar organisation at the European level, organised its general assembly on a regular basis, multiplied by ten the number of its members, gained space on the Alliance website (where it can regularly publish its news and make itself visible and heard); presented an alternative report on women rights situation in the country at the UN Committee for Social, Economic and Cultural rights in Geneva.

All of the above contributed to making the WLA voice heard within the Alliance and externally, empowering it to take gender mainstreaming forward to the benefit of the  profession.

The Project’s approach to increase the capacity of WLA brought two lessons learned:

a. the Project had to be ready to mitigate risks of occasional disengagement from the Alliance management in Project activities, when WLA lead-activities were perceived as challenging to the institutional culture that existed since its establishment.

b. helping WLA to form partnerships – e.g. with the European women professional associations – was an important part of the sustainability of the action, as it anchored it in a network of organisations, which share similar challenges and aspirations.

“Managing Development. Understanding the Inter-Organisational Relationships” book

My interest in this book and hence its value for my work stems from the importance of relationships between organisations, as a driver of close work for common purpose in development management. In other words, we follow the assumption that better we work together, better are the results in projects and beyond. There is general donors and governments’ consensus on that. The practice of it is more nuanced though (will come back to that in another post).

The book essentially answers the question: how can relationships between organisations be managed so as to build the public action and outcomes desired from development interventions? Its content is organised around three “ideal types” or modes of structuring inter-organizational relationships:  competition, co-ordination and co-operation. The authors warn us that these types shall not be understood as stand-alone and rigid concepts. There are significant overlaps between them and each comes with strengths and weaknesses, each peculiar to development stages and contexts.

The book might seem more academic, yet the background research abounds with practical relevance. Therefore, I come back to this book when relationships between and with stakeholders become too complicated and we seem to distance ourselves from our starting point. It helps understanding organisations’ dynamics, which jointly with the science of human behaviour, is a valuable knowledge to succeed in development management.


Gender mainstreaming: a ladder

I was in gender mainstreaming training some time ago. Two hours into the learning, a participant exclaimed: “but we deal not only with women in our projects!”. You can picture the facepalm of the trainer.Quite often I also hear what a hurdle it is to ‘mainstream gender” and other cross-cutting issues into development work. There are a number of simple approaches to befriend what became a standard requirement in projects.Use a “ladder” for instance.Step 1. Find out if gender matters. A gender impact assessment (GIA) will bring the answer. GIA will identify answers to:

  • is the project objective linked with gender inequality patters? The most common patterns relate to differences in the: access to decision-making, representation; access to resources; social/legal/financial status and entitlements.
  • will reaching the project objective affect women and men in a different way/women and men of different age groups in a different way?
  • will the above cause inequality? if yes, take Step 2.

Step 2. Get data. I know, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. And it is not about numbers. It is about the way they influence things and decision-makers.  “Figures often beguile me” wrote Mark Twain. Yes, numbers can charm or deceive. Triangulation can help break the charm sometimes.

Step. 3. Prevent/solve inequalities at the levels they manifest themselves. It can be project organisation matters (for example, the membership of Steering Committees) or policy matters influenced by the project (for example, through expert opinions on a draft law).Across all three steps, check you assumptions. Is what we know true/valid? Is this what both genders want/aspire to…? I came across “Testosterone Rex” by Cordelia Fine. See if this review “Goodbye, beliefs in sex differences disguised as evolutionary facts. Welcome the dragon slayer: Cordelia Fine wittily but meticulously lays bare the irrational arguments that we use to justify gender politics.”—Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development, University College London” will serve as in invitation to read it. Or, this article “A Feminist Biologist Discusses Gender Differences In The Animal Kingdom” by Suzanne Sadedin, Evolutionary Biologist on https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/04/13/a-feminist-biologist-discusses-gender-differences-in-the-animal-kingdom/

Each project/development work is different and many gender complexities will arise. And it is rare to reach the 100% gender mainstreamed target. It is still possible to bring a meaningful change/two and by starting small.

Sometimes, it is about giving the floor or creating a forum for all voices to be heard equally. It reminds me of an organisation 50% made of women who had less then 10% representation in decision-making bodies. Supporting an inclusive strategic planning exercise for both the organisation and the women association helped put a first stone into the road towards a more equitable representation and inclusive decision-making.

Expectations management

Every morning as a newly wed i used to do something mildly evil. I would wake up before  my husband, keep my eyes shut and pretend to be still asleep. He would be moving around the apartment, waiting for me to wake up. He would eventually succumb to his need to  eat and go make breakfast.  Why did i do that? Both of us grew in an environment where women cook, men eat. I was not going to succumb to this traditional expectation and bring it into our marriage. The result? For more than 15 years the breakfast is a fun and pleasant experience for both of us.

Similarly, in projects, project managers have to deal with expectations. I say ‘have to’ because otherwise projects risk acquiring the “scope creep” disease.

The project scope creep is a rather moody beast. Your client might not care about “your scope”. The beneficiary wants it big, shiny and now. The sponsor’s demands change and go up. Or the sub-contractor suddenly appears at your door with an invoice 3 times bigger than the initial estimations, while trying to sell ‘new features”. All – easy ways to make the initial project parameters become XXL, or gi-enormous, as my daughter calls things, which are unreasonably large for her taste, while the budget will stay on XS.

0*JCX5UCzFSMu8BDEyDocumenting and communicating on project requirements help on the prevention side. Yet, sometimes, people get creative and as fine as a scope guardian as i would like to believe i am, additional demands appear on my radar screen.

In time, i learned that my finest ally in this pressure attempts is the approved Project’s Objective. Is the new demand in line with the Project Objective? For example, a beneficiary wants  training on a particular skill for some members of the  organisation not involved in its management or development and the project’s objective is institutional strengthening.

If the demand passes the “objective test”, i submit it to the “budget test”. Is there enough money? If yes, is the expenditure an eligible cost under the financing rules?

Further on and in case of necessity, if the budget test gets the demand cleared, then the impact and cost-efficiency tests apply. I am a lawyer so maths and econometrics are not my strong point but I would get advice.

Finally, you do not need to be a solo-decision maker in this case and appear as the ‘bad guy’. To kill or manage the scope creep beast, you might need your superiors or the project’s steering committee. A justified No will help them decide.

Then, when you know the answer or the decision is made, invest time in communicating back to those who placed the demand.

I also learned to say No from the beginning, when signs of project creep appear. In a polite and firm way. It is also good for risks management.

If you are looking for some inspiration on why and how to say No, “The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness” by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher, 2014, can provide some insights into the healthy No.

“Successful Project Management” by Trevor L Young

I was in 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 the country and the project and gladly accepted the job. As our conversation ended on a positive note, my eyes fell on a book. It had the word “succesful” in its title. It resonated with my aspiration for the upcoming assignment. So I bought “Successful Project Management” by Trevor L Young. It is among my first books on project management. It still has my notes made on post-its inside.

The book is based on the presumption that the reader has already some experience of involvement in one or more projects. I think it contains valuable guidance on project management for beginners. And not only. I get back to it from time to time to refresh my basics or to get inspiration in explaining more complex issues to a non-project audience.

The book starts with explaining how success is or can be defined in the projects environment. It takes you then to “The climate for success” and then introduces one by one the key steps in the project process for success. It focuses a great deal on managing risks and the planning stage of the project, two critical areas in a recipe for success. Each book section contains a “Watchpoint” to draw attention to usually forgotten basics or critical issues.  It offers a list of standard formats for data recording and a list of Further Reading I keep finding handy in day-to-day project life.

Back to my assignment, the book helped me produce a structured and well articulated evaluation, based on which the client decided to recover the project. So it went from “near-to-failure” to a success and innovation example, to the satisfaction of the client and the beneficiary.

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).


From time to time failures occur or we let them happen. For a variety of reasons. I once drafted 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 resource- consuming  alliance building and bottom-up approaches. I have on my desk a brochure with the nice pic of the previous management of the partner to remind me not to let my overly optimistic outlook to take over pragmatism in project planning.

Failures are the learner’s best friends in projects 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!

“The project manager who smiled” by Peter Taylor

– What are you reading now, Oxana?project manager who smiled

– “The Project Manager who smiled”.

– Did you write the book? asked my good friend Frank.

– I wish. It’s Peter Taylor’s book, I smiled in response.

– See, it could be easily about you.

I do smile. Indeed, a lot more than at the beginning of my project manager’s path.

I believe now in the value of fun in project management. Walt Disney’s saying “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible” resonates with my believes as project management is often about making the impossible possible.

I discovered the book 3 years ago. I wish I discovered it at the beginning of my project management path.

It is one of my favourite books so far on project management.

The book is about having fun and being productive. In its Foreword, it brings the evidence of linkages between fun, good mood and healthy atmosphere and, ultimately, productivity.

Some personal notes I made:
It is unorthodox in a tools-templates-square–linear thinking project management world. Nevertheless, the book talks to you on pragmatic levels, from project manager to project manager, regardless of the size or location of your project.

It relies on a wealth of other project managers experience for things tried and workable approaches.

It puts a smile on the reader’s face and makes sure it stays there till the end.

The author is brave enough to give personal examples and stories, showing that there are gains in vulnerability. For example, in a moment of despair, Peter recalls a case when he walked out of a room full of team members, closed the door and pretended to be a boss firing him in a very loud voice.

You’ll not often find “expectations management” tackled in project management books. It has its place in this book. The book gives workable approaches to the management of expectations through e.g. constant feedback mechanisms.

It gives reassurance that creativity has its place and role in project management, making it thus appealing to more creative spirits who want to do project management.

Each chapter on Fun Inspiration, Fun Jokes, Fun Motivation, Fun Status, Fun Ideas, Fun Theme Tunes, Fun Team is followed by a PM Celebrity Gossip, sharing reputable project managers’ experience and projects’ successful fun stories. You can really relate or have an aha! moment in these gossips.

I warmly recommend it! It works both in project management and in overcoming storms at home. My kid will certainly respond with a smile when, in a moment of unhappiness, I’ll point a finger at her with ”don’t you dare smile, do not even think about smiling”. Enjoy the book!