Social Good: Leading Development Projects Transcript

PODCAST | With Guest Jane Canniff | 7 March 2018

Transcript

Announcer

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI we'll help you stay ahead of the trends as we talk about what that means for the industry and for everyone involved.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm Stephen W. Maye, for Projectified with PMI. For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and pmi.org/podcast. In this episode we meet Jane Canniff who left a successful IT consulting career to invest more than a decade leading key projects and programmes for two of the best known global development organisations in the world, World Vision International and CARE. Having just returned to the for-profit centre, Jane sat down with me to share how project work is changing and what she learned about transition, culture, adaptation and finding purpose in projects that could save the life of someone a world away. Jane, you have built an impressive career across both the for-profit and none-profit space, specifically in development organisations, so the development sector, I think you have a lot to contribute to this conversation and to this audience and I really appreciate you being here.

Jane Canniff

Great, thank you so much for having me Stephen.

Stephen W. Maye

So let's start off with a clarification. Not everyone is familiar with what you mean when you talk about the development sector, so say a little bit about what that represents.

Jane Canniff

So what I've come to learn of what development represents is the many facets of ways that organisations, such as CARE USA and World Vision, are working with developing countries to achieve their vision for what they want their world to look like to address poverty in those areas, to address access to resources and to help develop sustainable livelihoods in those countries.

Stephen W. Maye

So work worth doing. We've read a lot recently, really over the last few years, around the millennium development goals, so these were established by the UN, put forward globally as eight key goals. There's been a lot written about the success of the millennium development goals, which came to maturity in 2015, what's the connection between those global goals and the work of these development organisations?

Jane Canniff

So the connection between the millennium development goals and what has now succeeded those in the sustainable development goals and the UN, which is the body that helps bring all these different partners together to discuss what they should be, is the leadership within the organisations that participate and within the countries that participate, are holding themselves accountable to those goals. And so an organisation like USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, will set specific priorities around the funding each year and then work with organisations such as CARE USA and in some cases World Vision and other partners, to execute projects that have outcomes that contribute to achieving those goals.

Stephen W. Maye

So help me understand then, you've got these larger UN millennium development goals, you've got a whole vast number of development organisations, some of course much more prominent like those that you have served, they are working in some sense in harmony, on a good day they're working in harmony, and all of that progress happens in some way or another through projects. So help me understand the role or the fit of project leadership within the development sector.

Jane Canniff

Project leadership really is the key to achieving work on the ground in the development sector. Similar to how a construction project may look different from a technology software project, the projects that are undertaken in the development sector look different as well. However they all have the same key components required of project management for planning, development, execution and control and so those aspects of project management are relevant in the development sector, the same way they are in the technology projects that I manage.

Stephen W. Maye

So you and I crossed paths years ago, when you were in for-profit and I came to admire your work then, had a tremendous amount of respect for the work that you were doing and for the way the people around you responded to you. So you had built credibility, you had reached a principal level as a consultant, a project manager, programme manager, engagement manager, we don't have to read very far to know that statistically you had to take a pay cut to leave that and go into the non-profit sector. For you that was specifically the development sector. Why do it?

Jane Canniff

You don't have to read very far to know that it required a pay cut. So when I decided to go to work for CARE USA, and it was a great opportunity and I felt very fortunate at the time to have that as an opportunity to choose from, I had the sense that if I didn't take that particular opportunity to work in the development sector, using my project management and technology solution skills to support a non-profit, I may not have another opportunity like that again. And the reason I say that is because I don't have a background in economic development or public health or any of the other many avenues through which many people do follow in order to get into one of these incredible organisations, and so I had the thought that I could go do the development sector work for a while and that I could always get back into the for-profit sector if I wanted to.

Stephen W. Maye

So I love this idea that project management, and really we're talking about this broadly, so project leadership, whether you are project manager on your business card or whether you are serving in a PMO or as a programme manager or executive level leading a major initiative, that broad idea of project manager, what I hear you reinforcing is that that experience, that skill, that capability actually allowed you to move laterally across industries. So you said you didn't have to come in with an economic development background because you had something else, what we may sometimes have called you had a killer app, that allowed you to move across and be effective there.

Jane Canniff

Well what didn't hurt as well is that my organisation had done a small consulting assignment for CARE USA to help define all of their constituent facing business processes and develop and aurify a request for information on a proposal to replace their donor management system. So with that experience and with some amount of time where I had been able to get to know the organisation and they had been able to get to know me, there was a little bit less risk there, on both sides, and it really was a great opportunity to further the work that we had started as a consulting organisation, but being on the inside.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes, so you had a valuable contact or entrée there that you obviously parlayed into something very significant, I would say both for them and for you, from a personal enrichment perspective.

Jane Canniff

Absolutely.

Stephen W. Maye

So going back to this idea of project leadership, project management, that kind of work in the development sector, what's happening there, what's changing? What do I need to be aware of if I've had this desire, this yearning, some people would say this calling, to go do something meaningful in that space, what do I need to be aware of?

Jane Canniff

Whether you're working on an engineering project to help with infrastructure or it is a food security project to help deliver food and services to people, there are specific constructs that are unique to the development sector, that just like getting to know any other industry, it's important from a project management perspective to have the curiosity to learn what those constructs are and to make the bridge as a project management practitioner into that world, and to not expect the development sector to change for me. So whether you're building a house, if I were doing the same thing and going into the construction industry, if I wanted to take my technology project management experience and parlay that into the construction industry here in the US, there's a whole set of vernacular that I would need to learn, a whole set of constructs around how you do home construction that I would need to learn, as the project management practitioner. I would not be trying to force the different people that I'm working with around me to learn that information or to learn the PM constructs. So I think that is probably one of the most important lessons learned for me, is to just continue asking questions about their business and to understand how they approach project management and then work together to figure out, okay is this reporting that I have to do up a management chain, and I don't want to confuse what's already happening on the ground with what may need to be reported up to a donor even or even my executive team. I want to work in a way that enables the work to happen not hinder it. And so from a project management perspective I think that is really important to understand in the development sector. Another piece to understand is that project management has actually grown a life of its own in the development sector through the development of PM for development, which is a specific curriculum and that organisation is partnered with PMI to be a registered provider. And they are doing a fantastic job of helping to build capability within people in developing countries in the practice of project management.

Stephen W. Maye

That's fantastic and that goes along with something that you've talked about before, which is one of the trends in the space and this is probably true across non-profits, but certainly you've described it in the development space, development sector, is more and more emphasis on local ownership, local leadership, local capability, and that sounds perfectly consistent with that trend that you've described before.

Jane Canniff

Absolutely. That's something important to understand as perhaps, you know, someone who hasn't travelled to one of these developing countries, and at least for me prior to my work with CARE USA, I certainly didn't have many of them on my bucket list. So you're right, it was quite an eye-opener to me to understand how work gets done in these countries and how the stories that I had heard of old, in terms of you know a lot of the ex-pats that used to travel over and lead the work and do the work on the ground, that that really had changed pretty significantly to where the focus was really on building up local capability and local leadership. And once I had the opportunity to visit these countries and the offices where both CARE USA and World Vision worked, it was exciting to me to see the local staff really owning the work, and so many of them having been recipients before, now coming to work for these organisations and that creates a commitment like nothing I've ever seen.

Stephen W. Maye

That's fantastic. So how does that change the work of the project manager that is coming from outside?

Jane Canniff

As a project manager and what I would really term a project leader, my focus has to include developing people and being passionate about building up the skills of the people around me. And quite frankly that was something I picked up from my time in the consulting world, because I was held accountable to help develop those around me. That just instilled in me a passion for doing that at every organisation I've worked in, to provide opportunities and to help develop folks and to call out what you see in those people and encourage them. And so leaving the for-profit sector, there was still quite a bit of work that I had to do to clean up my consulting language, my consulting speak. You think about some of the phrases you might use that would be considered slang in the US, between a rock and a hard place, or any number of other expressions, they don't float very well overseas. So as a project manager I had to learn to speak just in very clear simple English, so that the way that I speak would not be another hindrance to someone being able to work with me or to understand what either I was asking or asking for. Another aspect of that transition too was just learning to be more sensitive culturally. It was funny I had been on a course and was at a university book store and looked in the cultural sensitivity section, and there was a particular book on how to learn about different countries that you might travel to. I picked up the book, very excited that this might help me, but I flipped the book over and it listed over 80 countries that would be highlighted in the book, but none of the countries I was travelling to were listed. So it really was a bit of a culture shock for me and part of what I tried to do was dress like the locals, because I look different enough, especially in Asia, that I don't need anything else to create, again, more of a barrier to them hearing what I have to say and being able to absorb it. So those small things made a big difference in my ability to engage with people and to help them achieve whatever it was we were setting out to do, whether it was documenting an inventory management process or helping to understand how they work with their sub-contractors and figuring out what our minimum mandatory requirements for audits were. I had to be able to accomplish those things in those settings and engage people in that process.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes. So you just keep painting for me this image of bringing this package of hard meaningful deep skills and capabilities and experience, but wrapping that in a soft accessible more familiar package.

Jane Canniff

Yes. I would spend breakfast, lunch and dinner just sitting with people and engaging with them and asking them questions about their lives. Most other cultures are so much more relational than ours is, even in a business setting, that it was always very important to understand and ask "how is your family doing", "are you well", and making sure that you would include those types of questions and interactions and allow time for those things within your business day.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes. So relevant most anywhere and hyper-relevant in some of the contexts where you were working.

Jane Canniff

Exactly, because right, wrong or indifferent, they still see me as this westerner coming in and the treatment that I would receive was just unbelievable, I mean just polite, friendly, warm, embracing, everywhere I went. I think a lot of that speaks to the organisations that I was travelling with as well.

Stephen W. Maye

So you've talked a little bit in other conversations we've had about the role of digital transformation in the development sector. Tell us about that. What's going on there?

Jane Canniff

So what really struck me as I began to learn more about the communications for development, is that in many of these countries they were skipping laying cable altogether. So you didn't see telephone lines out in many of the rural areas, you would see cellphone towers. So there was the leapfrog of technology in many of these countries where they would just go from zero to cellphone versus our own progression here in the US. Because of that, you would also see people going from paper to cellphone or tablet, completely bypassing computers; desktops, laptops. So it became really incredible some of the pilots that I would see of helping to track patients with HIV in developing countries and reminding them of either their doctor's appointments or to pick up their medications and being able to help track their health status as well, using cellphone technology. It didn't alleviate the fact that you still have to figure out how to get the medications to that person, which from a transportation standpoint can still be challenging in those environments. But the means to communicate with them and to understand how their health is and to then work with local providers to figure out, okay if that person is too ill to travel, then how can we get medications to them? Who is there in the link between where the pharmacy is and where the person is that can help us with that.

Stephen W. Maye

So you've got the data and information technology leaping far, far ahead of much of the rest of the infrastructure.

Jane Canniff

Exactly.

Stephen W. Maye

Roads, transportation, availability of medication, availability of clinics and on and on.

Jane Canniff

Right.

Stephen W. Maye

Doesn't that in some sense frustrate the work? I mean I'm imagining this situation where the richer my data availability and accuracy becomes, the more timely it becomes, the more effective I become in terms of information technology, doesn't that in some sense underscore the bigger problems? In other words I now know more about something that's very hard to solve.

Jane Canniff

I guess that's probably still the piece that has to happen, as we've got to take that data and turn it into information, and then to be able to take that information and act on it. Are we getting more data faster? Yes. We're definitely able to get the data faster and so the question is are we able to synthesize that data to turn it into information and then to act on it. That is still a process that is speeding up but I don't think we are at the point where we are in many developed countries where our action can be instantaneous.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes.

Jane Canniff

The other thing to remember as well is that the infrastructure that is still under development includes the Internet and having wide access to the Internet, and that is still something that is not readily available in many of the rural areas in these countries where we work. In fact I'll give one example, we piloted what's called e-letters between World Vision sponsors and their children and it's basically a way to allow a sponsor to email a note to their sponsored child. Well Stephen if I email you today and I don't hear from you for three weeks I'll obviously think something is wrong. But it's not unusual to send an email to your sponsored child and then have it take three, six, even 12 weeks to get a response. And so even though the vehicle is email, on the other end there still isn't the technology readily available to everyone to be able to respond in kind.

Stephen W. Maye

If I want to be effective as a project manager, as a project leader in that development space, what else do I need to bring either from a mindset perspective, from a skill perspective, from a capability perspective, what else rises to that level of importance?

Jane Canniff

This probably sounds strange but curiosity, just unending curiosity about the people you're with, the problems they may have and the potential solutions that can come out of that very same group. I think another really important aspect of working, and this goes to working with anyone but in particular anyone who is in need, is that we approach it from an asset standpoint versus a needs based standpoint, and that is sitting down with people and saying "okay what assets do you bring to the table?" "Okay so you might have a car, you've got skills as a painter, you have worked in a hospital" and what you're doing is you're identifying and calling out the skills and abilities of the people around you and what they have to offer to whatever it is you're doing, whether it is a workshop, whether you're focused on solving a problem, but that you approach it from an asset based standpoint not a needs based standpoint.

Stephen W. Maye

So you have recently, after 13 or so years in the development sector, transitioned back to a for-profit organisation.

Jane Canniff

Yes.

Stephen W. Maye

What do you bring from that experience back into the corporate setting, the for-profit setting, that you didn't have before or wasn't as clear or as strong for you before? What is the new capability or the new leverage that you bring back to the for-profits base?

Jane Canniff

I would say there are two key pieces that quickly come to mind that are helping me immediately right now in the work that I'm doing. One is the cultural experience, because while I was out working in two incredible non-profits, the rest of the world globalised. We were on the brink of that, at least where I was working we were just on the cusp of really working with and accomplishing work across the globe, but that is now something that's happening as a matter of practice versus it being such a new thing in the corporate sector in the US. So I work with people from all over the world in the corporate sector now, it's not just in the development sector. So that's one thing and I think my culture experience is helping me make the transition back into that for-profit sector more successfully. The other piece I think is just appreciating the challenges of working with a global team and understanding that while we have developers who are working over in Asia on things that we want to have done within a particular time frame, that it still may not go according to what we expect and that we have a much broader team that we need to work with to address issues. So as before I could just walk down the hall to talk to someone about a particular issue, now that hall is much longer and so I need to account for that in my day to day work.

Stephen W. Maye

And that hall spans a number of time zones.

Jane Canniff

It does span a number of time zones. Well maybe one piece of that may not have been quite as clear and that was A) the global team, but the other piece really is working cross-culturally and I mean truly cross-culturally, and understanding and appreciating that when you maximise what those different cultures and people bring to the table, you really come out with a much better product or solution.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes. That's incredible. Can you give me an example of where you came away saying because we collaborated well across cultures, because we really had an open ear to hear each other and hear those different perspectives and different experiences, we came away with a better solution.

Jane Canniff

Probably the sponsorship transformation programme at World Vision is where I saw that play out most extraordinarily, even in the day to day, but also in the strategic vision of the team there. It was a team made up of people from Asia, Australia, US, Africa, you know virtually every continent, and the team had such profound respect for each other and at the same time could challenge each other, and I really think that combination of passion for what you're doing, an incredible vision and an understanding that you still have to take that vision and execute on it.

Stephen W. Maye

So I'm interested Jane, do you encourage other project professionals to make the transition that you did, to take their skills, to take their experience and to go apply that in these kind of social good environments? Of course in your case it was global development work, it could be of course many other things, but do you encourage people to make that change?

Jane Canniff

Yes, yes, yes!

Stephen W. Maye

Well I'm not surprised but I thought I should ask.

Jane Canniff

Well what I do try to encourage people to do is to really take the time to understand what their passion is. It could be international development or I've met people who were really passionate about working with seniors. My guidance to them is go make it happen. You've got so many skills that could be used in that space. There's got to be a way to combine your passion for helping seniors with your project management skills. Sometimes it starts out as volunteering in some of these organisations, just to get to understand their business, again going back to being curious about it and what are the challenges that they face on a day to day basis, and then how can either business process improvements or leveraging technology differently really benefit them.

Stephen W. Maye

Yes. It's amazing what you can learn volunteering. Well after exploring the journey required to transition from a high flying consulting career to more than a decade in global development work and back, we knew we had more to learn from Jane Canniff. In a future episode our conversation explores the experience and wisdom gained from building a successful career as a woman in a man's world. For now, thanks for listening. For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and pmi.org/podcast.

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