Phase 2 - The Planning Stage
Hopefully you read my last blog on the Concept and Initiation Phase of the Project Management Cycle (PMC). If not, you might want to click here and read about Phase 1 and all the activities leading up to the signing of your donor agreement.
I continue to refer to the Project Management Institute (PMI) when talking about these important 5 phases of Project Management, as it is the largest membership association for the project management profession and it has established globally respected standards for project management practitioners. I teach many aspects of "the project" in my University courses and following 30+ years working in international relief and development, I'm pleased to relate these to this sector and share them with you.
If we are to look at project design as a sequence of events, starting from the concept phase to receiving the award, then the next phase would logically be The Project Planning Phase - essentially where a project manager builds the project roadmap and includes the core and support processes of a project (e.g. project scope, schedule/work breakdown structure, risk assessment, resource plan/budget, team & stakeholder management, communications, information systems/MEL, etc.). Essentially, you've told the donor what you intend to do and now, you describe (in detail) how you plan to do it. The Project Plan will be a document that considers all of the different tasks that will need to be undertaken, the phases to be considered and any specific dependencies that will occur within the project. You will have a human resource plan, which specifies the people needed for the tasks and for how much time they will be needed.
You will also define your financial resources plan on a monthly or quarterly basis, to ensure that the project can be delivered according to the approved budget. Your risk management plan identifies the main risks that could impact the project. It pinpoints the probability of them occurring and the impact that they could have if they did happen. The risk plan shows how the risks will be mitigated and the steps taken to overcome them (should they occur). Your communications plan will consider who should be communicated with and when. It should be clear from this plan how often different stakeholders should be communicated with and what should be included in the different communications. Your reporting schedule will also be clearly stated. Your work breakdown structure will have a detailed accounting of your activities, by quarter (or month if a shorter project) and will indicate the sequence of activities and their relationship to one other (in case there are delays and knock-over effects on other activities).
In some instances, the planning phase can start as early as the first day of your proposal design (in the concept phase), depending on how confident you are about getting the project funding. I’ve had projects that we started planning for right away, since the donor had already given us a verbal “ok” on the funding. However, it is a lot of work and generally involves the investment of significant amounts of time and money, so it is not recommended that you start this phase until you have that guaranteed award.
The Project Implementation Plan (PIP)
In international development projects, the principal deliverable for Phase 2 is often referred to as “the Project Implementation Plan" – or the PIP. Other donors (like USAID) may refer to it as the 'detailed implementation plan - DIP.' Some donors have templates to follow for this plan, while others leave it up to you - but the contents are often very similar.
Based on an approved proposal, (a signed charter or agreement) an implementing agency will need to buckle down to create a PIP right away. Usually the donor will give you a set amount of time to do this - ranging from 6 - 12 weeks. It is very important to remember that MOST donors will require pre authorization to expend any of their funds for this purpose. Make sure that you have discussed this with the donor, to determine what are considered 'eligible expenses' for the purpose of formulating your PIP. If not, you may find that you have disallowed costs right up front.
The PIP is a means of getting all stakeholders on the same page in regards to the project design, the set of activities, management, schedules and finances. In a sense, you can say that a primary purpose of the PIP is to achieve consensus prior to the start of implementing the project activities.
More importantly, however, your PIP document will provide a clear action plan that will link your resources, activities and responsibilities to your results. For the project manager, it is doubly important because it will (a) build a strong foundation for important decision-making and performance reporting throughout the project cycle and (b) it will support a shared vision of what the project is supposed to achieve, why and how. Every member of your management team (and your partners) will need to understand the problem(s) you are addressing, what the expected outcomes will be and how you plan to deliver on them. Later on, as context begins to inform your implementation, you will be able to use that PIP to inform any change processes and to make course corrections throughout the project cycle.
Get on the same page before you exchange any resources
The PIP, once completed, is submitted to the donor for verification and approval, to ensure it is in line with what was agreed.
It is probably obvious by now that the two first phases have a number of checks and balances to ensure that all parties are on the same page before there can be an exchange of resources to start project implementation (funds to initiate activities). What this means is that you need to ask all of the questions that you need to ask - despite the excitement of getting an award and the anticipation of starting the good work in the field where it is proposed. This may sound obvious but I often see agencies a little timid to ask the big questions in case the donor reacts poorly.
I recommend that you never put your worry of losing the grant ahead of your organization's best interests - and that of your stakeholders in the communities. Don't take on a project that you can't implement or where you have insufficient capacity - or where there have been many changes whilst waiting for the approval. Your context may have changed and so you should talk to the donor about your concerns and discuss it with them. In most cases, you will be surprised how supportive and understanding they can be at that stage.
Involve your project manager!
For those who have regularly used our resources at The Grants House, you're probably used to us pointing out some of the key differences of Project Management in the international development space. A few of you who are pursuing project management certification have already thanked us for highlighting some of these areas - and for that we are grateful. There are certainly a lot of unique characteristics in the sector.
If you are a non-profit organization and you have just started writing your PIP, it is very possible that you have not yet identified your project manager. If you're like many organizations, you want to wait until you have approval before you post the job opening - especially if it's a big project. So you've likely started to launch your hiring process as soon as that Notice of Award was received. Remember what we said in our last blog - "the project management cycle doesn't start until you have hired your project manager." Technically, the PMBOK (the project management body of knowledge) states that there is a difference between the ‘project cycle’ and the ‘project management cycle.’ Simply, in the former, there is no project manager (a single person who is delegated the responsibility of managing the resources of the project). In the latter case, it assumes that there is a project manager.
I recommend that - wherever possible - try to include your project manager in this planning phase of the project. After all, he or she will be the one responsible for the key decisions going forward. I can say from many years of experience that it is very hard to 'inherit' the methods, the tools, the mistakes and the successes from previous managers - and those decisions ripple out and affect the rest of the management team significantly. Planning takes on the attributes of those involved in its development and your project manager needs to be aligned and in sync with those plans. Of course, this principle also applies to 'continuity' in your project as well. How many of us have experienced turn-over in project management and observed the difficulties in finding a replacement and/or managing the project hand-over smoothly?
In one case, two years ago, I took over a project near the end of its life cycle and inherited a team that had been completely disillusioned and disenfranchised by the previous two managers! In both cases, the project managers had left and there was no continuity plan in place (supported by headquarters). I had to ensure delivery of the final results while rebuilding the confidence and trust of the remaining team so that we could finish the job. There had been nearly 6 months of no management prior to that, resulting in chaos in the financial and program activities. While the headquarter office struggled to keep things going, there was a complete break-down in the project 'management' cycle even though the project itself was entering the closing phase. If you've ever had a project manager leave part-way in a project or even a couple in a row - then you'll be nodding vigorously in agreement right now. It's tough!
In the international development sector, it is not uncommon to see 'proxy managers' involved during Phase 1 and 2. These are often people who are going to be part of the management team throughout the project cycle. In this case, there is continuity and support throughout.
However, some organizations will separate the functions of new business development and compliance (or implementation/operations) and once the award is won, the duties of management are handed over to a new team.
While this can work well for landing new awards, it can create all sorts of challenges for the implementation phase. A disconnect can occur between the two teams.
The PIP is an incredibly important time to ensure continuity and to manage the hand-over from 'design' to 'implementation,' especially including the field stakeholders that will be part of the implementation team. I've seen organizations that do not do this and when it comes time to implement, the start-up is incredibly hard because decisions were made that just do not make any sense in the context of the project. While it is a hard thing to hear - Winning a project proposal is not the objective - it is the successful implementation of that project.
Avoid the Gap - management continuity
It is important that we know these distinctions in project management so that we can ensure that there is continuity throughout the project management cycle - even if we only have 'proxy managers' at the outset (e.g. a new business development officer assigned to the PIP). It is our responsibility to factor this in as we are preparing that all-important Grant Proposal design. It is equally applicable to when we lose a project manager during the project cycle! From the perspective of the donor, the implementing agency is responsible for management and the financial obligations of the project - at all times. At no point do you want to tell the donor that you are not in the project management cycle! You may have to hire someone new but you should still have a plan for managing that gap period. It could be your headquarters or regional program manager, the original new business development officer (at the design phase) or a deputy project manager.
Define the roles and responsibilities of your team
The best way to ensure management continuity is to demonstrate a very clear reporting system within your organization. This is why the donor usually wants to see your staff structure (or human resource plan) for the organization and the project - and why the budget is an important place to capture direct and indirect costs related to management. Basically, you are addressing accountability within your project. As such, you will want to define the skills of your team, which positions are needed and what is expected from everyone. This includes creating a job description for each position. It is easy to bypass some of these tasks if you already have people in mind for the job - but don't, it will save you time and grief later.
Participatory Planning - Involving all stakeholders
When donors ask for 'community consultations' I hear a lot of organizations raise concerns about the cost of initiating those discussions and whether it can wait until the project is approved.
Involving your community stakeholders in project planning sets the stage for continued participation throughout the project cycle, through to closing. The universal principle of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reinforces the commitment to eradicate poverty in all its forms, but most importantly to end discrimination and exclusion, and reduce the inequalities and vulnerabilities that leave certain groups of people behind. Engaging your target population in the design and planning of your project ensures that you can identify those groups of people who are typically unable to voice their opinions and to have their voice heard in activities that are meant to assist them.
This is another unique feature of the international development 'project' in that it encourages participation - and in fact, more often succeeds - if the recipient communities are involved in its design, planning and implementation.
Participatory planning enables the implementing agency to identify many of the risks that may be encountered throughout the project cycle - such as what has failed in the past, how the community has met resistance before, and what hurdles or perceived difficulties exist. This discussion can help in the preparation of the project risk mitigation plan (or risk registry) which will help anticipate and plan a response to those risks.
Shocks and power dynamics - just another day in development
I love development projects because there are just so many variations and context-specific conditions that create those project anomalies for the management team. I know - it's not for everyone - but if you're good at adapting to change, then you'll love it too!
Project managers in international development have to accept a level of uncertainty, flexibility and adaptive management in their work style. If you look at a lot of descriptions on the job board, you'll see that it is often a hiring prerequisite in finding that perfect project manager. They have to expect the unexpected, cope with shocks, disasters, conflict, break-down in community processes, pressure from other power groups, natural disasters, changing work schedules when collaborating with government bodies, and the list goes on. There can never be enough attention given to the meaningful participation of community stakeholders in development projects. The question is usually one of available resources, level of certainty in winning your grant submission, and capacity of your teams and partners to collect good data.
Active and Informed
You will recognize if your project design and planning phase is including meaningful participation because your stakeholders will be ‘active & informed’ throughout the process. They will not only be engaged but they will understand what the project is about, what it intends to deliver in their community and they will know what their role is throughout the project cycle. You will also be able to identify those important issues, through meaningful dialogue, that you might not otherwise have discovered. Donors recognize that if their projects plan in this meaningful way, then the chances of a more profound outcome and successful conclusion of the project is likely.
Happy Grants Hunting!
When you are designing and planning your next grant proposal and 'project in waiting,' you will realize that the key is to determine how to involve all your stakeholders. In the past, Phase 1 & 2 of the Project Cycle was the domain of experts and would often be a top-down approach. In international development, that approach is no longer good enough. You will require rigorous community mapping & a detailed gender analysis. You have to demonstrate and explain how you did these consultations before many donors will even consider a proposal. A project proposal that does not demonstrate this meaningful engagement is likely not going to get funded!
I'm Dr. Phil Tanner, founder of The Grants House. I've been working in international development and humanitarian relief work for over 30 years and now I'm excited to pass along my experience to you in The Grants House proprietary training courses!
Don't forget to give us a thumbs up after you read this blog and let us know if you want to hear more about the various components of The Planning Phase 2 of the Project cycle - and other unique features of Projects in International Development.
@The Grants House, 2023