I remember my first change request: “We need the center to host 150 people, 50 more than initially planned, which means building one extra wing.” That would have increased the budget by 30%. It was unrealistic, given the budget cycle. I had to ask another colleague from the regional coordination to say “No”. Then I came across Peter Taylor’s book ““The project manager who smiled” where I read: “The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is ‘No’.
Project managers get often requests like: “We want these new features to the product. And by the way, why doesn’t the software have these new reporting tools we just adopted?!” or “We liked the study visit. We would like to go on one more by the end of the year.”
These are not Christmas letters to Santa. Yet, it is pretty close. In the course of project implementation, beneficiaries tend to try to get more than initially planned. And it’s normal for them to try, for different reasons. I usually do not questions their motives. Not my job. My project manager’s job is to give them what we agreed, when we agreed and for the budget we agreed, without jeopardising the expected quality.
Because the project manager is not Santa, it’s ok to say “No”. There are a number of ways to say “No” by considering the repercussions on the project and ultimately the beneficiary. The most important part is to have the beneficiary understand why the project manager says “No”. Reference to facts or similar past experience may support the understanding of pragmatic beneficiaries. One approach is to show what would happen if “yes” would be the answer.
Let’s take one of the wishes from the above list. “Yes” to an extra wing would mean delayed opening of the temporary detention centre (due to reopening of the construction authorisation procedure etc.) and increased risks of revolt at the current facilities, which hold 100 people in less than acceptable conditions. Data shows that over the last three years the number of incomers is stable and the documents processing rates have improved. Therefore, the centre’s capacity is aligned with the demand. It worked in a project I managed years ago with a data-adept beneficiary.
When the beneficiary is guided by emotional or more personal motives, he/she may not hear /want to hear a reasoned “No”. The costs of “No” can be also high. For example, it asks to choose a certain consultant/service provider. A “No”, even if demonstrated by strictly adhered to procurement procedures and open competition rules, can have the beneficiary complain to the project sponsor and/or lead to the rejection to work with the chosen consultant/service provider. Each project is different and each beneficiary’s powers are context specific, so careful consideration is warranted. What I found important in such situations is to be as open and transparent about these kind of requests with all concerned. It cost me once a friendship, but then it was not perhaps the kind of friendship I would keep.
A “No” does not need to be brutal and cutting-off. One soft way of saying “No” is to help the beneficiary find another project who can accommodate the request. It will bring value added through networking to the relationship with the beneficiary, in addition to the opportunity for a good collaboration with another project/partner.
As a preschooler, I was best friends with our teacher’s son, Andrei. It was particularly helpful at disciplining times. “If you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the babies’ class” was the harshest penalty on earth for us. At the slightest sign of the “penalty” approaching, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s discontent). “Ok, you two go back to class. The rest – off you go”. This relationship brought to both of us many perks in those pre-school years.
As we find out in adulthood, networking does not come that easy, at least not to all of us. “Why on earth?” “How? How do I start the conversation?”. “What if they will think I am too pushy?” etc are the usual introverts’ inner talks at networking events. I’ve been there. Done that. In time, I learned that the initial contact struggle was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network is the hardest part. It takes time and effort.
It is self-explanatory that projects do not exist in a vacuum and networking is part of the project manager’s job. “How good are you at networking?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews.
Networks help in projects. Knowing the right person in the right place at the right time helps solve and/or prevent lots of issues. Networks also contribute to the change the project works for.
To make a network work it needs not to be self-serving. The perks of networking need to bring mutual advantages and lasting benefits to those involved and the professional community at large. And it needs to be clean of any allegations of inappropriate actions.
Mary was managing a multi-million project whose success depended on a vast network of Government officials. She knew some of them through previous professional contacts. The majority though were totally new both in their jobs and to the project.
She did her homework and found out whom from her network she could approach to help her gain access to the rest. Her first strategy of meetings over coffee and introductions at official receptions was successful. She moved to the next step and asked the most influential project partner to convene a meeting with all, to make it official through a charter signed by all. It was an important milestone for setting the common goals and demonstrating the benefits of the network and the project.
As the project progressed, some inevitable hurdles emerged and the network kept changing as the commitment of some of its members to common goals changed due to Government reshuffles. Mary kept true to the charter and continued to pro-actively engage the members of the network at levels which worked: one-to-one, smaller groups, entire network. In the end, keeping the network consistently functioning for the entire duration of the project paid dividends, as its members demonstrated a sufficient degree of maturity for a more advanced phase of the project.
As announcements of unprecedented economic responses rolled on, public procurements worked in an emergency regime. Economic relief plans opened the door to opportunities. Opportunities put to test both the business integrity and the integrity of public institutions. International organisations – such as Council of Europe, OECD – started publishing warnings of corruption risks across industries.
I have not managed investments and/or big infrastructure projects yet, although many years ago I was in charge of overseeing a portfolio, which included a number of infrastructure projects. I remember the complexity of those projects and, in consequence, how high maintenance they were. There was no corruption involved, as reported later by auditors. Yet, my state of alert was constantly high. And understandably so. Seven digit invoices, delays, explanations and justifications, demands for additional budget were some of the red flags. Plus, rubber boots and dusty construction sites came in a package.
The article “Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room!” by Giorgio Locatelli, Giacomo Mariani, Tristano Sainati, Marco Greco equips project managers with a number of valuable insights, both at the planning and at the implementation phase. As the executive summary of the article states: “This paper leverages the institutional theory to introduce the concept of “corrupt project context” and, using the case study of Italian high-speed railways, shows “the impact of a corrupt context on megaprojects.”
In addition to that, the article analyses the salient facets of corruption and characteristics of projects which make them more or less prone to corruption. One can use them as red flags. Authors raise an important number of issues, which are to be paid attention to, in particular as the topic of corruption can still appear as highly controversial in some project management contexts, in particular in times of emergencies.
“Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room!” by Giorgio Locatelli, Giacomo Mariani, Tristano Sainati, Marco Greco, published in the International Journal of Project Management, volume 35, Issue 3, April 2017, pages 252-268, available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0263786316301090