This article was first published on the by the Agile Business Consortium.

By Pamela Ashby | 2 February 2018
I was recently privileged to attend a meeting of the Project Management special interest group at Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development. PM4NGOs was at the meeting – the international NGO that promotes and sustains the professionalism of programme and project management in the international development sector. They have plans to update their project management certifications in 2018, incorporating Agile principles and techniques.

Listening hard to the discussions in the room, I was struck by the implications that working in the development sector has for project management. This has further impact when you overlay Agile principles.

NGO Girl at school

Stakeholder relationships

Stakeholder relationships are extremely complex in this sector. The balance of power changes where there are donors involved, and the supply chain comprises a string of partnerships that are designed to deliver projects on the ground. Procurement processes encourage people to describe detailed implementation plans where the reality of a situation may not be known.

Donors are not only looking for project delivery, they are typically expecting a plan that delivers behaviour change that improves the situation of people. They wish to provide funds where reassurances are in place that a project will change attitudes and culture over the longer term.

So what happens when donors need the reassurance of a five year plan to be confident that their money will be well spent and that the infrastructures and partnerships exist that will enable the right support to reach those that need it?

The five year plan feels reasonable from the perspective of a donor, and yet this foundation lacks agility to respond and adapt to circumstances that are in a state of constant shift. Who would want valuable funds to be used on digging boreholes, if another agency had just finished digging them.

NGO women using a laptop

This differs from a commercial environment where a budget is provided by the board to deliver an agreed strategy. For these development projects, money is hard won and nothing can be achieved without funding. Budgets are derived from donors whose starting point is often one of nervousness and anxiety as to whether the money will be appropriately and effectively spent.

In today’s fast moving world, Agile practitioners are very aware that ‘things change’. The Agile concept of horizons warns against attempting detailed planning against a faraway timescale, in the knowledge that too much will change by the time you get there, and so time will be wasted.

Collaboration, trust and empowerment

The goal has to be to build in just enough governance for donors, partners and other stakeholders to trust that there is control. Where there is trust the opportunity builds for teams to collaborate and freely respond and adapt to current conditions. After all, in a disaster zone it’s most unlikely that people can accurately predict what they will find. If there is no power, no supplies, no experts on hand, then the need to innovate and discover new options becomes a compelling requirement. Teams must be empowered to react in an environment of trust.

The perspective on control in this environment is unique. Much simply cannot be controlled. Consider a country where there is armed conflict, ethnic violence and acute famine. A simple activity such as moving water tanks through customs, where officials are rarely paid, to where they are needed via roadblocks controlled by different factions would not be a predictable or controllable activity to plan months in advance.

NGO women writing

Right people, right projects

Having the right people with the right skills on the right projects is paramount. There’s a lot to balance in this area. Language skills, knowledge of cultures, engineering expertise are all critical – and yet their value could be diminished where communication skills fail to ensure that all parties involves are working together towards clear and shared goals.

It is critical that cultural power relationships and power dynamics are considered. The traditional source of power in a society may need to be challenged, and development workers will need to adapt and firmly protect their neutrality to stay effective amidst local communities. This applies to all kinds of projects – including longer term initiatives, such as trying to generate sustainable agriculture.

NGO grass

Changing conditions and lifecycle

It’s hard to see how a standard perception of a project lifecycle applies in this sector. The conditions and level of risk are likely to change exponentially at any time throughout a project. A decision that may be perfectly reasonable within conditions of crisis may become irresponsible and untenable when the immediate threat has passed. How does a team establish an appropriate response in a timely way?

Clearly a waterfall approach of ‘big design up front’ is never going to be optimum for this environment. An Agile approach where delivery is based on transparency, trust, collaboration and empowerment offers much. The 2018 certification updates will pave the way.

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