Recently, I was asked to work with a consortium of international humanitarian aid organisations to formulate a collaboration model. Fundamentally, my task was to facilitate them in answering such questions as:
- How are they going to manage their project?
- How will they communicate with each other?
- How will they make decisions and solve conflicts?
It was a very interesting assignment that really brought me back to the days when I first started developing project management courses in 2017. It made me question again how we can cooperate more effectively with external partners, especially when it’s sometimes difficult enough just working with our own colleagues who sit in the same room as us. When you factor in various cultural and linguistic barriers, different sectors and styles of work, and the massive geographical spread often at play in European projects, you have a real challenge on your hands.
So, is there a secret formula for perfect collaboration? I don’t think so. Simple collaborative models can work for small partnerships, but in more complex projects you would need to apply more sophisticated management and communication models.
However, there are some rules that should be applied in every project.
A very important and fundamental characteristic of European consortia is that all the partner organisations are equal. It does not matter whether an organisation is a small NGO or a well-established national research institute; their voices are equal! All team members have the freedom to express their opinions and concerns. No matter how complex the project or how big the consortium, the equality rule should be reflected in any management system you decide to apply.
Clear strategic and operational management structures
When it comes to management, you should always consider two levels: the strategic and the operational management of the various activities, work packages, or intellectual outputs.
A steering committee is a good option for a strategic management structure. It’s basically a group composed of the most senior team members from each partner organisation and, if required, other important project stakeholders. The main role of the steering committee is to approve project deliverables, evaluate risk, and manage conflict.
Steering committees can assemble at project meetings, for example, on the last afternoon when the other team members (project assistants, trainers, experts, etc.) have finished their work, in order to discuss the overall strategy of the project and make key decisions. Steering committees should also have regular check-ins on Skype, Zoom, or other virtual meeting spaces in order to keep the project on track.
Operational management is a different matter. For steering committees, there is generally a sole project manager who leads on behalf of each organisation, but in operational management, there tends to be different leaders for different activities. For example, if one of the project outputs is a research report, an academic partner will usually lead on this activity, with support from the other partner organisations. If the outcome is to produce a new training programme, the partner with the most expertise in training would lead, again, with the support of the other partners.
This means that while it’s important for all partners to contribute to each output, even just in an advisory or user-testing capacity, the activity leader has ultimate responsibility for coordinating their assigned activity, monitoring progress, and following up with partners on their work.
This operational management structure means that the overall project coordinator is relieved of the responsibility of managing every single project activity, which in complex projects would be impossible anyway. Another advantage of this model is that it allows partners to become fully invested in the project’s success, shape the outcomes, and feel a sense of ownership over the results.
‘What exactly do you mean by a “toolkit”?’
This question was raised at one of my project meetings a couple of years ago when, after 12 months of the partnership discussing how best to design an education toolkit, we finally realised that we all had a different understanding of the word “toolkit”.
We were a team of people from different countries, all with good English, but with different cultural backgrounds. For some of us, a “toolkit” meant a physical box with a set of educational tools, while for others, the term was more metaphorical, and meant a repository of ideas, techniques, and exercises.
It quickly became clear that we were not on the same page about some of the most important terms and vocabulary related to our project. So, we decided to create a glossary as a communication aid, and it ended up being one of the most useful tools I’ve ever created for a project.
It was a simple tool, but it made life so much easier for the consortium. I now thoroughly recommend that everyone create a glossary for their project from the outset in order to avoid the confusion we faced. Try it out as a group activity with your partners during proposal development and you’ll see for yourself all of the different interpretations of various terms, and be glad that you clarified them early on!
Project Management Handbook
Project managers often overlook the preparation phase that follows project approval. They believe that a project application, which usually contains dozens, if not hundreds, of pages, will be a sufficient reference tool for the project team and the important stakeholders involved. This is a mistake.
Think about the thick, unfriendly, and bureaucratic documents that are submitted to attain grants. How easy are they to read? Bear in mind that most team members are not native speakers of the project application language. Are they accessible to them? The truth is that these documents are usually quite laborious to read, and there is little chance that your project team will analyse them carefully.
So, how can you use this time to prepare your project for success?
Adapt the project application into a more friendly and accessible document, which we at M-Powered call a project management handbook. This handbook should detail project objectives, partner organisations, timeline, activities, and other important project details. A comprehensive project management handbook will become a vital tool in the success of your project.
We help project managers to create collaborative models, communication strategies, and conflict management plans. If you would like to find out more about our services get in touch with me. You’re also welcome to join us on our course Successful team = Successful project, which we will be running for the third time in Ireland in November 2019. Register now as there are only limited places available!
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