Operation Urgent

project management in conflict and post-conflict countries

Abstract

Our presentation will cover the following topics related to project management in conflict and post-conflict societies: a brief survey of the conflict and post conflict societies this paper is based upon; the goals and objectives of project management in conflict and post-conflict societies; some important tools and techniques to employ in such project management settings; a summary of the key points; and, a sketch of the future.

Introduction

Our presentation asks and attempts to answer two questions concerning project management in conflict and post-conflict countries:

  How does project management in these types of countries differ from project management in peaceful countries?

  What specific tools and techniques work best when executing projects in such countries?

We believe these are important questions to ask and answer given that there now exist 37 countries in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and the Middle East are in a state of conflict or post-conflict reconstruction and development. More importantly, in calendar year 2004, over $200 billion USD was spent in various reconstruction, redevelopment, and humanitarian relief throughout the world. Regardless of the nature of the project concerned, from health care delivery, to food aid, to security-related, the number of projects being implemented in conflict and post-conflict societies is in the thousands of thousands. Critical in these reconstruction and development efforts is the need for project teams to deliver quick and demonstrable results that improve the physical and economic status of recipient communities.

Because we are not able to use actual project data due to proprietary issues, our paper relies on anecdotal experiences of project management in the following conflict and post-conflict societies: Iraq, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Palestine. We look at the project lifecycle and discuss common project management experiences and key tools and techniques used at each phase of a typical project. Finally, our paper identifies key success factors and lessons learned from project management in conflict and post-conflict countries.

Points of Departure

Before discussing the key project management experiences and important tools and techniques during each phase of the project lifecycle, we will first discuss some important points of departure for projects in conflict and post-conflict societies. In order no particular order, we will briefly discuss common threads related to: project stakeholders, project selection, project success versus project failure, project management tools and techniques, and the organizational change management issues that can arise during project implementation.

Project Stakeholders

All projects have their stakeholders which using the parlance of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) is: the customer, the sponsor, the performing organization, the project team, and the project manager. (PMI, 2004, p. 24-25) In a conflict and post-conflict setting, the iron triangle of stakeholders is the client (aid donor who is both the customer and sponsor), the counterpart (government, non-governmental personnel who are also a customer) and the project team (contractor who are the performing organization and project team). (See Exhibit 1 below for a graphical representation of these various stakeholder relationships.) The more political the client and the more controversial the project environment is the more careful project teams must be in managing stakeholders.

Additional factors to be aware of are these:

  Counterpart continuity can be a serious problem given the evolving political landscape and its impact on government appointments in both conflict and post-conflict countries.

  Counterpart availability is also a problem – especially at the senior management level – due to international travel demands.

  The use of the project team as a scapegoat and whipping boy by both donor agencies (client and observer) and counterparts is to be expected. This can be mitigated through daily and detailed communication and its documentation.

In summary, sound stakeholder management is crucial and the management of unrealistic expectations held by both client and counterpart officials is crucial to long-term project success/completion.

Stakeholder Map (PMBOK® Guide Stakeholders in brackets)

Exhibit 1: Stakeholder Map (PMBOK® Guide Stakeholders in brackets)

Project Selection

In our experience, the key points to note about the selection of projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  Many projects are selected by donors for political reasons and need to be sold to national counterpart organizations and their officials. The delivery of quick results can pre-empt national counterpart criticism of such projects.

  Duplicate project funding is a real risk. Good project coordination and communication, not competition and information hoarding, needs to be fostered among donor agencies to mitigate this serious risk.

Project Success versus Project Failure

If the traditional project management triple constraint consists of the delivery of projects within budget, on-time, and according to specifications, in a conflict country the triple constraint consists of project delivery as soon as possible, for as a cost-overrun as possible, and in a manner that brings tangible results to project customers and end users. (PMI, 2004, p. 378) (See Exhibit 2 below for a graphical representation of these two types of triple constraints by which to judge project management results.)

Revised Triple Constraint for Conflict and Post-conflict countries (Traditional Triple Constraint in brackets)

Exhibit 2: Revised Triple Constraint for Conflict and Post-conflict countries (Traditional Triple Constraint in brackets)

Project Management Tools

In our experience, the key issues to when considering what project management tools to use are these:

  • All project management scheduling and risk management software is always valuable. However, given the lack of computer literacy in many societies, and the need to be able to function without electricity or internet services, the use of these tools is at a premium: spreadsheets, flow-charts, check lists, and basic progress charts and graphs.
  • The number of project management tools used should be kept to a minimum due to the lack of time, local skill levels (for long-term training and sustainability reasons), and general operational demands on project team staff.

In summary, project management software is valuable for detailed work breakdown structure development and project reporting. However, it can be too demanding on staff time for daily use and it is not user or view-friendly. The use of milestone flow-charts, checklists, and multicolored spreadsheets (for delivery status reporting purposes) are more creator, user and reader friendly tools that do not require a great deal of time to develop and update.

Organization Change Management

Regardless of the economic sector or type of project, the single most important factor influencing the execution of projects in any country (conflict, post-conflict, peaceful) is the organizational structure and culture of the host government organization.

In most countries, the use of a matrix or projectized organizational structure for project execution is rare. Most countries affected by conflict have traditional functional structures. This structure results in a number of work culture dynamics that greatly influence project delivery. Some of the most common work culture traits we have experienced are these:

  A concentration of decision-making authority in the office of the senior-most manager of the organization or organization unit. There is not meaningful delegation of authority or empowerment of subordinate staff. This results in delayed decision-making and follow-up as subordinate staff are either intimidated by the prospect of having to make a decision or, simply unable to approve of any action from work assignment, to event approval, to correspondence issue.

  A culture of risk-averse behavior in which host country staff are unable to make decisions, take initiatives, or make commitments of time, personnel or money.

  A failure by many government officials to take ownership of donor-funded projects and other activities taking place in and with their offices and personnel. This complicates the task of developing national counterpart capacities, capabilities, and resource commitments to maintain and sustain project deliverables once donor funds are no longer available.

  An over-reliance by national counterpart officials and staff on donor-funded staff and expatriates to execute daily work activities. This passive work culture once again stymies and delays the handover of project activities to national counterpart staff.

All of the above dynamics occur throughout the world – and not just in conflict and post-conflict countries. However, these dynamics are exacerbated in strife-torn countries due to local communal and ideological politics. In addition, there are many ways to deal with the above organizational culture issues. However, that is really beyond the scope of our paper. We mention these organizational dynamics here to press the point that projects in conflict face many hurdles beyond just the physical constraints of danger, movement, and infrastructure. The organizational and cultural hurdles are also serious and can present long-term constraints on successful project implementation.

Key Project Management Issues

In this section we will provide an overview of the key project management issues that typically arise in the following phases of a project: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, and Closing – including Post-project Reviews.

Project Initiating

In our experience, the key issues to address when initiating projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  • Speed in staff deployment, operations commencement, and results deliverable is essential if project teams are to satisfy the need of donors for quick visible results to satisfy media, public, and political requirement. It is also mandatory if host country officials, community leaders, and counterparts are to be reassured that the presence, activities, and projects of the international community in their country are valid and valuable.
  • Project deliverables that will need to be maintained (and paid for) by host governments, once donor funding is no longer available, need to be identified at this time. In this way, the host government will be aware of its future financial responsibility for the project deliverable(s) and they can begin to identify a national chart of account and funding allocation for the same in their national budget.

Project Planning

In our experience, the key issues to address when planning projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  • The use of rolling wave planning and budgeting for project plan development and updating is highly recommended. This enables maximum flexibility in WBS development, task scheduling, project budgeting, resource procurement and risk identification and response planning.
  • Cash disbursements will be the means by which project expenses are covered. The more conflict-ridden a society, the more likely it is that a hard currency (US dollar and Euro) cash economy will be in place requiring the holding and management of large sums of currency by project teams.
  • In conflict countries, the security-related costs of projects can rise to as much as 40% of a project budget. This is due to the hiring, housing, and equipping of security personnel, the increase in salaries for project staff, and the need to secure project work and staff housing sites.
  • The key issue is the delivery of tangible results in as short a time frame as possible.
  • Schedules will invariably not be met due to security and civil unrest-related factors.
  • Project management in conflict and post-conflict societies is risk management pure and simple. In the classic probability-impact matrix, there are no green areas. At best, the low impact, low probability cells (risk events) are amber (yellow).
  • The cost of procuring goods and services is high and even higher in conflict countries. Project teams should plan on being as self-sufficient as possible. In most conflict societies, project procurement officers are dealing with a seller's market.
  • Plans to migrate donor-funded project deliverables to host government budget allocations, need to be developed and articulated to host government officials. It is never too soon in a project lifecycle to develop such plans given the long lead time that is often required to place new activities in the national budget and chart of accounts.

Project Executing

In our experience, the key issues to address when executing projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  • Control over project team members will be more tenuous in conflict settings. In addition, the reliance on local staff is essential if projects are to be successful in their efforts.
  • Project team cohesion can be a great challenge given the pressure of the environment, the need for fast project delivery, personality and professional conflicts of opinion, and staff turnover.
  • Project scheduling software is a valuable aid in developing work breakdown structures and sequencing project work. However, use of simple milestone charts, spreadsheets, and checklists have been found to be easier to produce, explain and document actual project progress.
  • National execution must be encouraged and effected as quickly and extensively as possible both for project cost control and execution reasons.
  • Murphy's Law rules project management and project teams must be prepared to deal with scope creep, workarounds, and even rework in as positive and accommodating manner as possible.
  • Disruptions in project funding, operations, and staffing are to be expected and contingency plans and allowances must be in place to deal with these.
  • In conflict countries, remote control project management is largely the rule since access to project work sites, work teams, and counterparts is problematic, dangerous (for all concerned), and subject to severe time constraints. Use of national staff, focused meeting management, and field visit multi-tasking are essential to accomplish as much as possible with severe time constraints.
  • Project costs will most likely be covered through the use of hard currency cash disbursements. The local banking system is likely to be primitive, limited, and not trusted by host country nationals. Thus, cash management and security are key budget execution and financial management issues.
  • Daily communication with client, counterparts, and project team members is essential to document project decision, implementation status, and simple information provision. The use of electronic mail and web portals greatly facilitates this process.

Project Controlling

In our experience, the key issues to address when controlling projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  • Scope creep is inevitable and must not be completely avoided lest primary project objectives become unachievable due to structural or feeder project obstacles.
  • The need for a formal and flexible change control process is essential. Frequently, statement of work deliverables cannot be achieved unless additional add-on work is also completed. This additional (workaround) effort is hard to anticipate, is often a great surprise, and needs to be accepted so long as it is not too expensive in terms of time, resource level of effort, and money.
  • Projects will be over budget due to inevitable and unavoidable scope creep and the need to protect project personnel.
  • Modern technology (cell phones, VOIP, internet) has greatly alleviated day-to-day communication obstacles. However, the cost of maintaining these systems can be very dear depending on the location of the country concerned.
  • The use of earned value analysis is not likely to be very useful since most projects will be late and over-budget before they begin due to the assumptions built into the project documents – e.g., daily access to project work sites, counterparts, and no significant down time for project teams.
  • The use of multi-color milestone flow charts to track and report on project implementation is more creator, user, and reader friendly. A typical color-coding system would consist of tan for planned work, green for in-progress work, blue of purple for completed work, and red for delayed work.

Project Closing and Post-project Reviews

In our experience, the key issues to address when closing projects in a conflict or post-conflict society are these:

  • Collection and organized archiving of project documentation and data is essential.
  • Frequently, it is not possible to conduct a proper post project review due to staff departures. When this is the case, the mission exit reports of all project staff must be scrutinized for any information that will assist in handing over the project to host country nationals, highlighting key sustainability issues, and identifying lessons learned that can help the organization in bidding on, planning for, and executing similar projects in the future.
  • As mentioned earlier, any projects requiring follow-on funding from the regular host government budget need to be identified early on. Project managers must make sure that the formal process of migrating such projects from ‘off-budget' donor-funded status to ‘on-budget' regular government budget status is well advanced before a project closes. Crucial in this process is knowledge of the budget planning and cycle for the host government; identification or creation of the national chart of accounts entry(ies) for project operating costs to be borne by the government; and, documentation of the above in the final project completion report.

Should a project team fail to at least initiate the process of migrating future operating costs for a project deliverable, the project can quickly fail due to a lack of funds, personnel, etc…. to maintain its operation.

Finally, all lessons learned from all project activities must be generated, documented, archived, circulated, and accessed by senior management, country managers, and project managers and their teams in order to deliver project results quickly. Included in this process is the identification of project staff that performed well and need to be recruited, retained, or reassigned for use in other projects in conflict and post-conflict societies. Such experienced staff will serve as an for organizations bidding on projects in troubled countries due to their demonstrated ability to deliver results, quickly, properly, and reasonably close to budget goals

Conclusion

The key lessons learned from project execution in conflict and post-conflict societies are these:

  1. Initial projects should be selected that will bring quick visible results to satisfy media, public, and political requirement.
  2. Lessons learned from all project activities must be generated, documented, archived, circulated, and accessed.
  3. The recruitment, retention, and reassignment of staff with project management experience in conflict and post-conflict societies are a must.
  4. The use of rolling wave planning and budgeting enables maximum flexibility in WBS development, task scheduling, project budgeting, resource procurement and risk identification and response planning.
  5. The number of project management tools used should be kept to a minimum given the time and energy demands on project team staff.
  6. The use of milestone flow-charts, checklists, and multicolored spreadsheets (for delivery status reporting purposes) are more creator, user and reader friendly tools that do not require a great deal of time to develop and update.
  7. National execution must be encouraged and effected as quickly and extensively as possible.
  8. Murphy's Law rules project management and project teams must be prepared to deal with scope creep, workarounds, and even rework in as positive and accommodating manner as possible.
  9. Disruptions in project funding, operations, and staffing are to be expected and contingency plans and allowances in place.
  10. In conflict countries, remote control project management is largely the rule demanding the use of national staff, disciplined meeting management, and field visit multi-tasking are essential to accomplish as much as possible with severe time constraints.
  11. Project teams should plan to cover local costs through hard currency cash disbursements requiring good cash management and security.
  12. Stakeholder management is critical and no unrealistic expectations should be engendered in client and counterpart officials.
  13. Frequent and formal communication with client, counterparts, and project team members is essential to document project decisions, implementation status, and risk management.

Looking forward, project execution in conflict and post-conflict societies is likely to increase. Organizations must maintain databases on previous project experiences in such settings or generate them. Staff who successfully served in such settings should be retained or close communication maintained in order to allow for their quick deployment to new conflict countries. Organizations that operate in conflict, post-conflict countries must set-up units that will deal with project selection, execution in such countries.

References

PMI (2004) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Insititute

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005 RJ Voetsch and C Myers
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada

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