There are many articles and manuals advising and guiding project managers on how to lead, manage and deliver challenging projects, or to be more precise, how to survive the project successfully without ending up on the candidacy list for the sack. Nowadays, there are also numerous tools and methods (Scrum, Lean/Kanban, PMI, Props, PPS, Prince2) whose mastery should provide you with additional credentials and guarantee your employer that you are trustworthy and ready to embark on a project.
In describing the cycle and implementation of any project, one can easily paraphrase Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina quote: all easy projects are alike; each challenging project is challenging in its own way. The challenging part is particularly true for donor-funded projects as they significantly differ from any other projects in private sector. Their implementation relies on so many external factors and depends on decisions, moods, knowledge, readiness, availability, and support of a vast number of people and institutions, and so many ‘what ifs’, that from the very beginning it looks like a mission impossible.
Furthermore, despite the fact that all projects have similar cycles and general implementation rules are applicable to all, there are no practical guides tailored made for project managers and backstopping staff working on the implementation of donor-funded projects. If one is searching for the job that can be described as ‘learning by doing’, one can immediately point the finger into the project staff working on donor-funded projects.
Therefore, based on our almost 20-year experience which comprises all kinds of roles in various donor-funded projects in Serbia (from assistants to directors), we would like to share some practical advice to all those who went astray and ended up earning a living by being that person in the middle among experts, beneficiaries, contracting authorities and company’s expectations.
Working on the project implementation provides one with the unique opportunity for gaining the ‘most important survival skill for the next 50 ‘years’. As historian Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) explains: “it is very likely that automation will disrupt all our current jobs and will hack our brains and that the only defense against it is one’s emotional intelligence, i.e. ‘emotional flexibility that allows for constant reinvention, and knowing yourself well enough that you don’t get drawn into the deep Internet traps set for you”. The most important thing will be investing in emotional intelligence and mental balance. Even Bill Gates recognized the importance of emotional intelligence as a skill that accounts for nearly 90% of the difference between average and star performers.
The uncertainty and constant changes and challenges typical for projects’ implementation are the great chance for development of one’s social and emotional intelligence.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of project supporting staff, regardless of their position defined by the company contract, who tend to underestimate their role in the team, denying themselves an opportunity for personal growth and acquisition of new skills and knowledge.
One should always have in mind that donor-funded projects are mostly about transferring know-how and best practices in various areas. Therefore, for people with initiative, projects are an opportunity to learn about completely new topics, which would otherwise never cross their paths.
Project assistants/managers/officers (various titles for the same scope of work) tend to live in their small world of office duties and documentation processing without any initiatives to raise above the average and to be engaged in the very essence of the project implementation. The fact that one is on the bottom of project ‘food chain’ does not mean deprivation of the right to play in the same league with experts and managers. Moreover, positioning oneself as a team member aware of each role’s importance (rather than considering oneself as an invisible subordinate reluctant to voice their opinion for the benefit of the team) can lead to the promotion or salary increase. After all, plants are on the bottom of food chain, yet there is no life on Earth without them. This is also much valid for the projects, and backstopping staff, regardless of the formal hierarchy among them, are the real troopers who are fighting for the success of the project. They are the ones who make sure that everyone gets what they need (company, experts, beneficiary, and contracting authority) to be successful in what they are doing.
As explained before, the initiative and social intelligence are mandatory for above-average performance on all levels. However, if the leading and managing role is required by the formal contract as well, the initiative for self-improvement is not enough; some core management skills need to be in place from the very beginning.
Apart from good communication skills, which are described in all PM manuals as indicator of success number one, a good project manager really needs to understand what good communication implies in this content. It is not only about understanding the beneficiaries, managing their requests, respecting opinions of all stakeholders including the project team members – all these are crucial and go without saying – but it is actually understanding that being a project manager is knowing and accepting that everything is ‘your fault’ no matter what. Once this epiphany reaches the prospective project managers, they will be stimulated to develop other skills necessary for becoming that omnipotent being that everyone relies on.
These are some practical tips on how to become a merely capable project manager:
1. If you cannot get what you want, you must want what you can get. As already emphasised, the donor-funded projects are highly dependent on external parties that may unreasonably slow down or jeopardise project implementation. When the technical proposal is prepared and the project is won, everything seems so straightforward and possible. All experts are available, timeline is clearly defined, everyone is fully committed to the accomplishment of the tasks and sky is the limit. However, as soon as the kick-off meeting is over, the ideal bubble bursts and problems start. Thus instead of constantly complaining about why things are not what they should be, one should propose solutions for solving the problems. This is valid for improving the strained relations with the beneficiaries or the contracting authority, timely finding alternatives for the experts who are underperforming, and getting the best out of the team one is working with. Such an approach will be more appreciated by the employer, rather than mere problem listing.
2. ‘Golden Eye’. If one has ever wondered what it feels like to work in an intelligence service, working on the project may give some ideas. Once your initiative and potentials are recognised, there is a chance that all parties involved will consider you as their accomplice: as a local person, beneficiaries will trust you more than some ‘foreign’ people ‘with no clue how things are done here’, the company naturally relies on you as an employee, and project team including team leaders (the smart ones!) rely on you to be their ‘eyes and ears’. Therefore, this is an opportunity to have different background information and this intelligence can be valuable to all, as it enables you to react during the crises and to steer all stakeholders towards problem solving. However, it requires being James Bond, filtering the information shared and keeping the confidential one to yourself, as “trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair”.
3. Rules are for fools, guidelines are for the smart people. Every beneficiary country, institution and contracting authority has their own rules that are to be applied during the project implementation. As some of them are general and dependent on various legislative and contractual procedures, many of them are not carved in the stone and can be changed and simplified. Therefore, at the very beginning of the project, take an initiative and try to clarify what are the initial requirements for all kinds of approvals. Do whatever is necessary to submit immaculate documentation during the first months of project implementation, and once the mutual trust is built, approval process will end up to be nothing more than formality.
4. “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” There is lot of ego in consultancy business and one should be aware of it and leave it behind, especially when managing the team. It is important to know the limitations of your team as well as your own and to delegate the tasks accordingly. Good managers fight for their teams when necessary, trying to plow the way to make sure that the team has necessary resources to do what is at task. Moreover, they do not forget to take a break to celebrate success together with the team, and to spoil the teammates once they deserve it.
To be meaningful, the criticism addressed either to the team or your peers must be constructive and contain feasible proposals. The easiest thing in the world is to notice and list the mistakes of others. However, unless the criticism is followed by well-elaborated proposal or advice, it is better to keep it to yourself. Building one’s career by putting down others is not a sustainable solution.
5. ‘The King is naked’. There are moments when the project implementation comes to a dead-end. The worst thing a project manager can do in such moments is to embellish the reality by trying to minimize the problems and risks, as well as their role in the process that lead to the potential disaster. In other words, take responsibility for your mistakes as much as you are taking the credits when everything works properly.
In order to avoid the dead-end situation, as a project manager, one should carefully do the homework at the very beginning of the project: objectives have to be challenged and a clear understanding of the tasks to be accomplished and success criteria are agreed upon. Furthermore, a project manager needs to have a decent tool for tracking progress, changes, errors and milestones; otherwise the risk that everything will go south is huge.
6. The endless universe. We all tend to look at the past events with graduation goggles and nostalgia. Therefore, each new project looks worse than the previous one. Just when you start thinking that it cannot get worse, remember that universe is endless and the bottom does not exist. In addition, take off your graduation goggles; maybe you will conclude that there is not so much difference between the projects. Moreover, when your employers respect you more, they will give you worse and worse projects to manage. Accept that not as a punishment, but as the reward for being reasonably good in doing the missions impossible.
This tip list might look a little bit gloomat the first glance, but in reality, one can really enjoy working on the projects. With every new project, additional experience is gained and implementation becomes easier. Like in the Matrix movie, once you learn how to crack the code, the game becomes more interesting and more involving, despite the challenges. Starting from the assistant position should not be discouraging, but rather motivating, as it gives you more time to figure out all the codes that you will have to crack later, once your new (and more lucrative) role in the team will require decision-making.
- Snezana Pavlovic, WEglobal Project Manager
- Selena Lebovic Radojevic, WEglobal Project Manager