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Saving the World Project Management (Part 1)

Project manager demographics are hard to come by, but we all know that project managers are as varied as species of bees found within the family of Apidae. We come in all shapes, sizes, and roles. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not even classify “project management” as an occupation! Instead, project managers are currently counted as construction managers, information-systems managers, or when working in other areas, considered part of a residual category of “unclassified” managers.

Yet with all this diversification, we generally manage to speak the same language and understand a common set of underlying PM methodologies, principles, and goals required to get project work done. This is, in part, due to the fine efforts of the Project Management Institute (PMI), which has amassed the largest PM association in the world (growing from 43,000 members in 1999 to millions of members in 2018). PMI has certified hundreds of thousands individuals as experts in their field.

Within this large and varied family of worker bees, there is one species that stands out from rest. That is, the local, regional, or international development manager. This sub-species of project manager can best be described as those managing projects that aim to improve the basic human condition, or otherwise preserve the planet for future generations to come. For example, managers in this field are overseeing projects that improve health services, provide rescue and relief operations, offer climate-change solutions, and move our civil society forward.

Management of these altruistic projects differ from the norm we find in the business world. At the end of the day, business-related projects are intended to reap a profit or otherwise enrich value for their stock holders. Workers are expected to bring home the bacon–and not anything else. In contract, the bottom line for human-development projects is not measured by how well projects (and people) perform monetarily, but on how well the project changes a targeted human behavior (hopefully for the better). This distinction is non-trivial, and impacts the way that that project work is planned, costed, carried out, and finally evaluated.

In the following article (Part 1 of my planned series), I’ll focus on the overall difference between managing public and private-sector projects, and how there is often a mating of two distinct species of project manager within this context. Of course, both are working together to fix up the messy world in which we cohabit.

“Close Enough” for Government Work

Back in the 70’s, I grew up within a family of government workers who used a common phrase when describing the overall completion of our project work: “It’s close enough for government work…” This meant that at the project’s end, it was successful enough. The phrase, of course, also alluded to the fact that there was a very (very) low bar to begin with. Over budget and underperforming was the expectation, and if a project came ANYWHERE close to reaching its targets, it was considered a grand success. Such is the story of managing government projects, where funds may be limited only by what tax-paying citizenry can bear, and where success is measured by how many of said citizenry are pleased at the polls. Compounding this silly situation is our civic habit of awarding (and rewarding) projects that improve what we can see, and not giving so much attention of those things that we can’t see—unfortunately, things that may be rotting away underneath.

Out of this “close enough” culture came the rise of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). These organizations came into being to help governments do better, and are considered part of the public sector (not private). For NGO project managers, close enough is NOT good enough, especially if the goal is to eradicate Ebola or rebuild a crumbling infrastructure. NGOs, at both the local and international level, assist governments in the planning and execution of important projects with lofty humanitarian goals. And they often using methodologies and practices that would be foreign to any certified graduate of PMI, or to any other project manager working within a pure business world for that matter.

Take, for example, the well-known practice within the private-sector of starting out with a business plan. Such a good idea! However, in my work with NGOs throughout the past two decades, I’ve seen very few plans that I would consider convincing. In fact, for most project managers working on, say reducing poverty, there is no real business plan that balances out. Ending poverty is rather a losing proposition, so perhaps that’s why PMs in the NGO sector don’t spend a lot of time putting together plans.

NGO Terms: “Log Frames” and “Project Donor

Instead of a traditional business plan that lays out what can be done with funds available and explains how that business can be sustained over time, PMs working for NGOs develop log frames (I plan to detail this in Part 2 of this series) to help identify targets that will satisfy both donors and stakeholders. These are the items that will be satisfying even if after all is said and done and the humanitarian project concluded with a financial loss. Success here is not easily quantifiable, and any Value for Money (VfM) formula used in the business world would need adjustment to factor in qualitative results anyway.

Another difference that often confuses my PM counterparts working within the pure business realm, is the term project donor. Humanitarian-driven projects usually have one or more of these. The term refers to where the money comes from. Project donors are not usually venture capitalists, nor private investors looking to gain a profit. Project donors on the international stage are individual governments, and on the more local stage, project donors take shape as foundations, trust funds, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Regardless of the source of funding, project donors do look for a return on their investment, even if that return can’t be counted by a bank teller.

When Worlds Collide–Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)

When public projects become partnered with private-sector players, things get a bit crazy from a PM perspective, and that’s where project management methodology differences glare. An example of this is the construction of public works. Imagine a finely balanced planetary system being swallowed by a black hole – that’s a PPP contract! Here is what that universe looks like:

Figure 1. Depiction of the various levels of private-sector involvement in public private partnerships. Source: Brookings Institution

Figure 1 shows us where two almost diametrically-opposed systems collide, often with chaos amongst those project managers and workers who have fundamentally different philosophies about getting things done. Within a PPP project, the project manager must understand the behaviors, customs, and norms of two distinct species of worker bees–those that are accustomed to helping humanity, and those primarily interested in making a buck.

Part 2 of this series will examine specific differences in nomenclature, PM methodologies, and varying practices between these two worlds. In Part 3, I will show you how to adapt your Microsoft Project plan to better manage projects from within the structure of this unique kind of world-saving collaboration.


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Written by Jigs Gaton

Jigs Gaton is CEO of Phoenix Consulting and Training Worldwide, a company that helps developers design and implement better programs and build capacity with training and other resources. Jigs has over 30-plus years of experience in both the private and public sectors working as a project manager and PM consultant. He’s currently based in Kathmandu, helping organizations with post-earthquake reconstruction and other disaster-relief efforts.

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    Thx for your comment Chris. I agree, NASA is an exception to the rule, as is DOD in some cases; I wrote about that here, so this article may be of interest: https://www.mpug.com/articles/new-technology-better-collaboration-simulations-modular-designs-make-project-success-examination-nuclear-submarine-building/


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