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Three lessons on project management that I learned from my mistakes

Martin Cobb from Treasury Board of Canada raised this paradox in 1995, “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure—so why do they still fail?” Despite ongoing research, writing, seminars and training, Cobb’s paradox remains unresolved. There are no silver bullets to successful project delivery but insights from experience and research can minimize preventable crises and project failure. I led the country operation of an international not-for-profit organisation in Tanzania for seven wonderful years managing a portfolio of projects in multiple locations. As I reflect on my field experience, I recall the mistakes I made and learned from. Here are three lessons for international development organisations starting new projects in developing countries. These won’t guarantee a successful project, but I can tell you from my experience that whenever we erred on any of these, we paid a heavy price.  

Exercise rigor in selecting the project leader and team even if it delays project start up. The quality of the project manager and the team is among the most important factors contributing to a successful project. In an environment where the human resource pool is limited you may have to make a trade-off between soft skills and sector-specific knowledge and skills. In such a situation give extra weight to soft skills (integrity, positive attitude, and ability to listen, communicate, collaborate, learn and manage people and tasks). Experience taught us that technical skills and sector knowledge can be acquired and/or compensated with targeted support from country/head office. However soft skills are harder to develop, difficult to compensate with external support, and their lack can ultimately be more damaging, requiring the country/head office to intervene to put out fires.  

Invest time and effort in the project start-up phase to build a shared understanding among team members on organisational and project goals and expectations, implement a rigorous staff induction process, and introduce required management systems and processes. Concerted effort in the first six to nine months is likely to build a solid foundation for the project to take off and succeed. We found this could be done through ongoing support that need to continue beyond the project concentrated inception workshops.

Establish a systematic process of project review and support and follow it in letter and spirit – not on an ad hoc basis. This is extremely important for projects in remote locations where the project manager and her/his team are on their own. Review and support by the country, regional and/or head office must be holistic covering financial, personnel, IT,  logistical, monitoring, programmatic and technical needs of the project team. This support can be through a combination of visits to the project location and remote support through regular phone/skype meetings. We noticed a tangible improvement in project performance when the project manager and the team felt connected to and well-supported by the country office. 

Abid Mallick is a consultant with a focus on systems and institutional strengthening, evaluation and monitoring, and program design and  management. He is founder of DevSYS Consulting, based in Ottawa. He can be reached at

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