Friday, September 24, 2010

Workshop Season

I don’t know what season you’ve got going in your part of the world at the moment, but if you are in our business sector you are probably well aware that we are in the middle of Workshop Season – a cyclical occurrence completely unaffected by the complexity of hemispheres, climate zones or climate change.

Once Summer gently turns to “Fall” in the Northern Hemisphere (a mythical place where seasons are made), armies of Emmas and their vast entourage of consultants, experts, assessors and interns descend on every “field” location there is, animated by traditional post-labour-day energy, conditioned in inhabitants of that mythical land by hundreds of years of well organized, protestant ethics.

As a cutting-edge humanitarian organization fully committed to saving lives everywhere the donor penny is available, HRI is of course highly tuned to this natural rhythm and is innovating as usual in forever finding new ways to organize workshops and meetings, the meat and potatoes of any respectable life-saving enterprise.

There is no escaping the natural rhythm of things, and life-saving workshops are keeping us all busy this time of year, from the tastefully decorated Tejarat Hotel in Heart, for example, where conference facilities have been booked ahead all the way to end November, to the slightly splashier junkets and summits where organic-free-trade-mohair-tailor-made suits rub hand-made stitches with organic-free-trade-virgin-wool-tailor-made suits and where the grinning musician of yesteryear shares pats on backs with yesteryear’s grinning politician over designer finger-food and superior beverages, united by the strong bond of blah-derhood.

Besides the human need to overcompensate for the well deserved inactivity during “home leave” (“I was burnt out and tried to disconnect, me, didn’t read my emails, etc”) with a burst of demonstrative energy and desire to show action, the Workshop Season is also factor of another cyclical reality – the Reporting Period.

Somewhere, in a mythical country South of Canada, financial years are “tuned in” with this natural rhythm of holiday/ work which means that current Reporting Periods are ending – a matter that absolutely must be marked by “a series of workshops”, also because remaining money must be spent out of this year’s budget (returning money to donors is poor form) – while new ones are beginning – a matter that mast be marked by a series of workshops, to “show activity” but also to create the illusion of “coordination”, a detail that will prove handy in so many future life-saving reports, not to mention applications for funding.

This shift in Reporting Periods is also particularly good to the reasonably paid Report-Writing Consultant (RWC), a species endemic in any airport lounges near you, this time of year.

Also time of year, in hundreds of “field locations” hundreds of project managers realize that hundreds of project periods are coming close to an end and thousands of “line items” remain unspent. Hundreds of workshops are immediately organized to come up with “accelerated plans” and set up “ambitious targets” for those partners that, as always, suffer from “absorptive capacity”.

Meanwhile, as a clear sign of development there for all to see, sumptuous conference locations are been built everywhere from Hargeisa to Port Moresby, catering to the lucrative workshop and weddings markets, ("plastic chair condoms" and bottled water stock anyone?) leaving just one question open: How come they don't have a MDG for that?

Before I finish and return to my ongoing life-saving workshop, I really cannot let this one go. The other day, HRI has organized a life-saving workshop about “communication” – a matter at the heart of any HRI project (premise: “we do all this good work and no-one gives us credit, we must become better at communication”). As always, this ground-breaking workshop has provided a unique opportunities for people across agencies to pocket allowances while winging, and one of the most important “findings” of the workshop was:

“Newspapers don’t care about our successes, they only want to publish negative, sensationalist stories, to sell papers”

While I was taking this cruel fact in, I allowed my thoughts to wander only for a moment, along with my fingers on the standard-issue Ipad, and came across this fascinating post, written by former HRI employee and skepticism enthusiast, Prof. William Easterly. In it, the good professor (who to his credit does not receive sitting allowance and favours winging for free) reports on a finding he had (professors don’t need workshops to obtain findings, they just pull them out of their superior thinking processes), which more or less was:

“Newspapers don’t care about skeptical questioning that implies more work, they only want to publish inspirational stories with a happy ending, to sell papers”.

And then I realized – what we all need is a global workshop with members of the academia and the press (and maybe business, why not, and "decision-makers" as well) to sort out this apparent “overlap”, once and for all.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Virtues of Micro-Management: Dr K’s Reverse Pyramid of Aid Project Management

Don’t know about you, but I love micro-management, me. It is one of those things, halfway between art and science that, if applied correctly, can yield amazing results in line with the objectives of our work and become the source of endless personal and professional satisfaction to the humble aid worker.

Done properly, it requires the correct bureaucrat to implementer ratio (B:I), best achieved by a reverse pyramid approach to “coordination”, in which the upper part (the reversed base) all the way down to the bottom-tip are packed to the rafters with countless coordination and advisory mechanisms, staffed by reasonably paid HRI consultants, advisors, government representatives and, of course, Emma, all united by a blatant lack of understanding of matters of implementation and an affinity for knee-jerk overblown reactions to any “feedback from the field”, in particularly if the feedback has to do with life-and-death matters such as the “inappropriate use of communication channels” and the use of the wrong word in the acknowledgement section of reports.

We call this "Dr. K's Reverse Pyramid of Aid Project Management (tm)/ RPAPM":

Besides the fact that it allows for a fairly consistent and predictable “burn” on the budget and an equitable allocation of resources among “partners”, the reverse pyramid approach creates an ideal environment for implementing aid projects for reasons that include but are not limited to:
  1. It allows plenty opportunity for unsolicited advice in the planning phase. Additionally, given the impossible-to-define dynamic between various coordination mechanisms, it is relatively easy to pretend one was not aware of a discussion happened in one committee, for example, and demand changes well beyond the time when implementing such changes would be possible or reasoonable, with the added benefit of plenty opportunity for subsequent passive-aggression;
  2. It allows the same people to “wear different hats” as members of different committees and, as a consequence, disagree with their different-hat-wearing-persona ("this matter must be brought in front of us as members of the other committee; Oh, the other committee only meets two months from now, on Tuesday morning").
  3. It allows for repeated invitations for “implementers” to attend meetings that never achieve a quorum and then get forever rescheduled; if they once don't show up, the quorum is met and crucial implementation decisions are taken;
  4. It allows for free interpretation of “conclusions” reached by various committees that no-one knew were meeting, in order to play highly satisfying power games with competitors other partners and stakeholders;
  5. It allows all of us an opportunity to share our wisdom and advice in areas we nothing about, providing, as it were, an opportunity for “fresh perspectives” and “thinking outside the box”; We like to call that innovation;
  6. It allows creative decisions of the lowest-common-denominator variety - the only golden standard in our sector;
  7. It allows for an ideal and equitable flow of credit and blame: blame is always flowing down the reverse pyramid, towards the tip (in particular for decisions taken by committees in which implementers were not present), and credit for success is always flowing up towards the base:

 (The correct flow of blame and credit in Aid)

UPDATE: seeing that it is in fashion to update and review iconic pyramids i thought i should use the opportunity that I had to correct some typos made by Nathan the intern in the illustrations above to also make some content changes to dr.K's RPAPM. I have noticed that in my academic fervor yesterday I seem to  have forgotten about the 6 or so "Poor and Vulnerable" people, who of course have a well-deserved place on the reverse pyramid (tm):