This article was originally published on Humentum

Oliver Filler, Program Quality Manager at Plan International, talks about his experiences in project management, rolling out program-wide improvements and how PMD Pro has helped provide a foundation for project management learning in the developing world.

George Miller: Hello and welcome to this podcast from Humentum. My name is George Miller and I recently had the opportunity to talk to Oliver Filler, the project management lead at Plan International, about his experience of rolling out PMD Pro training. Why did they choose PMD Pro? How did they prepare to introduce it and, critically, how have people found it and what impacts has it had? But before we got onto these big questions I began by asking Oliver about his own background in anthropology. What had got him interested in that?

Oliver Filler: I was just fascinated by people in society and why the world is the way it is, and looking at social constructs and behaviors, and why there is poverty: why are some individuals completely marginalized from society when others seem to have all the luck? I spent a lot of time in India during my university degree and my masters looking at the caste system and looking at the discrimination of Dalits, who are the untouchables within the caste system. That was around the time of the 2004 tsunami, so I thought I’d look into how that has an impact on aid and the distribution of aid. And so I looked at discrimination against Dalits as part of the tsunami response and made a lot of contacts that way with NGOs. It embedded my passion for development and humanitarian work and led into my first job with Save the Children.

George Miller: Was there an alternative course that you could have taken in which you became an academic? It sounds like you were thinking about the big structural issues as well as what was happening on the ground. Is that the path not taken?

Oliver Filler: Yeah, originally I was going to read English literature so I took a massive deviation from the path. People always ask me, do you have these plans in life and set up these goals? My opinion is that you miss opportunities that way and life :is too short to plan it out for 60 years only to realize it wasn’t what you wanted to do. So I have always veered towards the things that interest me, veered towards the things that I care passionately about and think are either great injustices or think that I can contribute something with my skill-set, so I try and maintain a flexibility, which is actually quite a useful skill-set for project management as well.

George Miller:So you began your career in this sector with Save the Children.  What were you doing back then? 

Oliver Filler:I was in Kashmir looking after education projects and some elements of monitoring and evaluation as well. It was post-conflict, fragile-state work. It pushed me down the path of humanitarian aid, which is most of my background. So fast-changing contexts, insecurity, but meeting huge needs. You’re dealing with very vulnerable individuals, so it was hard work but something I cared very much about. The entry into my career really was through Save the Children. You can deal with the insecurity, you can deal with the hard work, you can deal with the changing contexts and the frustrations because you’re dealing with very vulnerable individuals and you’re trying to support them as best you can. So as long as you’re meeting needs, it’s maybe not easy to forget about it, but you can accept some of the risks that you’re dealing with.

George Miller:Looking at it from the outside, I guess a lot of the time you must be so much in the moment when you’re in the field that it’s difficult to take a step back and think: is this the best way to do it? Are there other ways to do it? To keep an eye on the big picture because you have immediate human needs that you’re meeting. 

Oliver Filler: Absolutely, it’s the boiled frog syndrome where you don’t quite realize what’s going on around you because you’re in the middle of it. It’s a real risk with the work that we do in the humanitarian sector that you don’t have time to step back and look at the bigger picture. That is where project management comes in, because the role of a project manager is to provide that oversight and that space. While your team are running around trying to do the best they can in the middle of it, you need someone to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture and organize things. So that was where I first saw the need for that and probably a humanitarian context is the starkest reality to show that.

George Miller: We’re talking about a decade ago, a little bit more than that? What was the status of project management back then in the humanitarian sector?

Oliver Filler: It wasn’t just the humanitarian sector. I’d say the [whole] sector has professionalized a lot. I was coming in really at the cusp of change within the sector, so increasingly it was being professionalized; we were looking at project and programme management; we were looking at monitoring and evaluation and accountability, accountability to beneficiaries, making sure that communities are able to give their opinions and feedback and are at the heart of the projects that are designed. It was a fascinating point in the sector’s history because there was  massive change and with massive change you have huge challenges and obstacles. Ultimately we were looking at behaviour change, you know, these new ideas coming in, contradicting the way that the sector had been working previously.

George Miller: And what was pushing that change? 

Oliver Filler: I think it was just the flow of the sector. What generally happens, especially in the humanitarian context, is that a huge crisis will happen, the sector will respond and then we’ll learn. We’re lucky sometimes if we just pick up elements of the learning and embed it in the next response. But I think we just hit the cusp of this massive change point where enough had been learned in order to realize that things had to dramatically change. That was reflected in the sector, in the agencies that work within the sector. But I think it was also mirrored by funders, and where funders change their mind and funders start to prioritize things, the sector tends to follow as well. So I think things came together at the right time. It’s not to say that we are perfect where we are now, that we’ve learned everything and we’re doing everything marvelously. That’s certainly not the case, but I think it was a point where we had started to really push for doing things professionally, openly and transparently and that has now helped us improve the sector generally.

George Miller: So you came along on the cusp of change.  

Oliver Filler: I think so. I came in at a time where I was able to benefit from the changes that were being made. I’ve been lucky enough to learn as I go and be introduced to new training and new ways of working. But I was also at the heart for Save the Children of pushing a new monitoring and evaluation approach in responses certainly.  

George Miller: Can you tell me a bit more about that in practical terms, that new approach and your role in it?

Oliver Filler:  At Save the Children we realized that emergencies were being responded to in a knee-jerk way and there was the rationale – which is easy to understand, how we got into this mindset – which is that we must be doing it right because we’re doing it. This is the same with project management: ‘I know how to manage a project because I’m a project manager’. It’s a trap that we always fall into and there was a realization, not just for Save the Children but for the wider sector, that actually we needed to professionalize; we needed to look at our processes; we needed to push for openness and transparency. One of the things that Save the Children pushed earlier than most international organizations, I would say, was monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning, especially in humanitarian responses. Making sure we’re able to track what we’re doing, tracking our outputs, tracking our outcomes. What are we actually delivering, what quality are we delivering for people? We may be distributing things, but are they the things that people want? Save the Children really drove that early on in the sector. Likewise, running things like real-time evaluations: a few months into a humanitarian response, having an opportunity to step back and ask, is this the right response? In the middle of a manic humanitarian response, are we actually doing the right thing or have we fallen into the trap of just doing the same thing over and over? So real-time evaluations were really pushed by Save the Children early on and that sparked a big change in the sector. Then embedding monitoring and evaluation within that response and making sure that it’s there at the beginning rather than brought in as an afterthought. So instead of ‘we’ve been responding for a couple of months, should we bring in M&E?’, M&E goes in as part of the first phase response.

George Miller: I guess that any cultural shift meets with resistance or inertia or skepticism. Was that something that you remember encountering back then?

Oliver Filler: Yes, the difficulty is that you’re trying to embed a new way of working in a system that doesn’t know how it’s supposed to embed it, and how it’s supposed to work. So you end up with people line-managing M&E specialists who don’t actually know how M&E should work, and that’s just one example. There is a dange

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