ASSAR: management tips from the frontlines of a monster project

By Lucia Scodanibbio

“Lucia, can you share some of your top tips for managing the ASSAR project with our team? Many of the early career researchers may end up coordinating collaborative projects in future”.

 “Yes, sure, Amir, let me give it a think”.

“Great, you can give us a 30’ presentation next Tuesday”.

Er… what did I get myself into?!? I ask myself for the following few days as I try to dig through my head, thinking of “my top ten tips”….  

And yet, so many recent discussions, at a number of different levels, have revolved around reflecting on all that is being learned through our involvement in this monster project. The need to promote reflection is unsurprising, given the strong emphasis of funders towards collaborative research programmes and the fact that those most closely involved with these find the process rife with lessons. In ASSAR, the Spotlight on Learning has been one of the early outcomes of these reflections. More are underway, but in the meantime here go my thoughts – of course only based on my experience and background –about the DO’s and DON’T’s of managing a project.

ASSAR's 3rd Annual Meeting in Ethopia in 2016. Our yearly meetings are an important time for face-to-face contact with our colleagues who come from all over Africa, and India

DO's

  1. Have clarity on what you want to achieve and why, and work backwards from there. By this, I mean reflecting on the impact that one would like to realize through a project, and then putting in place a theory of change to assist in thinking through the steps that may lead to that impact. The clearer one is about the desired result, the easier it is not to meander off in many different, not so useful directions.
  2. Discuss and agree, as a team, on everyone’s expectations around the project (including budgetary), and their roles and responsibilities in it. Being clear on “who will do what” is essential; I also think that having some redundancy in roles (as long as it is clear to those involved) can be useful, just in case… For large projects especially, it is critical to have sufficient logistics and admin support, given the time that goes into this. At the beginning, it is also important to set up the systems that will help the collaborative effort, allowing for sufficient (i.e. ample) time for everyone to learn how to use these. In ASSAR, we rely heavily on the google drive system, which is incredible in facilitating collaborative work across different countries and institutions, but it took at least six months (and quite a few white hairs) for everyone to learn how to use the platform.  
  3. Promote (and put effort into) cross-cultivation of ideas, internally and externally. Internally, the challenge lies in how to maintain everyone as informed as possible about what others within the project are doing, without overburdening them with meeting fatigue and information overload. I do not have an answer about how to achieve this (except perhaps for using a weekly digest to keep people updated), but do know that the learning obtained from others that are dealing with similar challenges is invaluable when it comes to avoid reinventing the wheel. Externally, it is similarly worthwhile investing in exploring analogous work that others may be undertaking, and attempt to set up synergies and partnerships that can lead to saved effort, time and resources (often including co-funding of activities).
  4. Encourage everyone – no matter their role – to take responsibility and be proactive. Can we “think forward” (how does x link to what is coming up), “think backward” (how does y link to what we have done), “think upwards” (how does z link to our bigger strategy and desired impact) and “think outwards” (how does w link to what others may be doing)? Can we stop thinking of all the reasons of why things are difficult and “just do it”? And then, let’s celebrate the successes!
  5. Listen to input (including through promoting reflective activities), learn and adapt, as much as the funder allows! In the case of IDRC, ASSAR’s funder, we are lucky to be encouraged to be reflective and adaptable.

DON’T’s

  1. Don’t spend too much time and effort on developing long strategy documents, protocols and guidelines, versus short, punchy, practical ones. In ASSAR some of our longer, earlier documents (e.g. the communications strategy) remained rather theoretical and were barely read, and thus digested by the team. The important questions to be answered are the usual “who, what, when, how and, of course, why”!
  2. Similarly, don’t spend too much time refining research questions, objectives, etc. to perfection, as they may likely change. I would rather recommend starting and modifying along the way, as long as there is clarity on the final goal. 
  3. Don’t take anything for granted. As a project manager, I have learned (unfortunately...) that it is good to establish mechanisms for cross-checking: checking that issues and decisions have been understood, checking that x is doing y, checking that a particular part of the work is moving as (theoretically) agreed, checking spelling, layout, etc. Redundancy once again has not proven to be unnecessary in the ASSAR project, but has helped to give a steer where needed, to save some time and avoid some mistakes. When many people in the project are only remotely involved in it, with only a small percentage of their time, cross-checking seems to be critical.
  4. Don’t rely too heavily on any one individual or partner organisation, as turnover happens, for many reasons. Redundancy, the revenge. Similarly, I think it is good to explore working with new partners, who can bring different ideas; but it is essential to get references, establish clear expectations and systems to ensure delivery, and be brave enough to eradicate if the partnership is not working!
  5. Don’t tie yourself too tightly into logframe commitments (if the donor allows), so that flexibility and openness to opportunities can be maintained. While it is of course critical to be ambitious and seek to result in positive change, the logframe is not the place where to showcase such ambition, beyond committing to certain (broad, if possible) outputs and outcomes.

I am sure that if asked again to give my top ten tips in a year’s time, these will probably be different. As I have said before, once one’s eyes are open to discerning lessons about how we work and (try to) make progress, examples start pouring in, and we get roped into a continuous reflection and learning cycle. So, I guess, watch this space…