This is a familiar refrain of this blog, but I was reminded of it by Ben Ramalingan’s dissection of the failures of Results-Based Management in (UN funded) aid projects. He makes some good and depressing points about the inflexibility in approach and other limitations introduced by the RBM framework. But here’s the thing: these sorts of challenges (‘wicked problems’) are confronted on a regular basis by businesses all around the globe. Many business problems cannot be solved by some kind of linear engineering algorithm, but require flexible, creative and iterative solutions. That this is not easy is reflected in the large number of businesses that fail every year, but plenty succeed.
How many development interventions succeed? I have no idea, since admitting failure is one of the things the aid industry finds hardest, but we can hypothesise that the success rate is lower than that of the private sector. If we accept this hypothesis for a moment, the obvious question is to ask why the lower success rate? I would venture to suggest that the answer lies in the quality of management.
Before someone points out the obvious, I should add here that I’m talking about relatively simple project level interventions, e.g. improve access to clean water in a defined area, rather than the really wicked problems of conservation and development such as how to eliminate poverty or stop deforestation. Aid projects to deliver such services seem reasonably analogous to businesses and thus the comparison is fair.
Ramalingan is right to criticise restrictive management paradigms brought to bear in development projects, but I think he’s nonetheless missing the point. A good manager will always adapt and refine plans to reflect the reality with which they are confronted, and good management systems will allow good managers appropriate leeway. This is basic good management principles and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be achievable with RBM (though I’d recommend a good dose of KISI too). Inadequate or long delayed feedback on progress, a much lamented challenge in development, also shouldn’t be such a problem at the project level (it is much harder at the planning / donor level), as a good manager should always have a pretty good idea as to whether progress is being made, e.g. determining whether you’ve been successful in supplying clean drinking water to poor people isn’t rocket science!
So how does good business management differ from that used in a typical development project? Here are some suggestions:
- No fixed delineation between planners and implementers (see my earlier post), instead there will be regular communication between senior and junior managers.
- This typically leads to more flexibility to adapt when originally adopted strategies don’t work so well.
- Clear lines of responsibility: business is a much less collaborative environment than development. Managers have reasonable authority to act within the realms of their responsibility, and can quickly refer upwards if needed. Contrast with bilateral donor projects riven by the gaping chasm between government staff on one side and expat technical advisers on the other.
- Successful businesses have management teams that stay together for long periods of time, and thus have learned how to keep a steady hand on the tiller. Businesses know that if their key talent in a certain area leaves their business interests there will likely suffer or even collapse entirely, so great care is taken to ensure continuity when staff do leave. Contrast with rotation of expat TAs on development projects, who often only stay for 2-3 years before moving on.
So sure, having a good planning / management framework can help, but it is the soft skills that matter so much more, and that’s why most businesses, especially those operating in the knowledge / service economies, place such a high importance on good HR management. When will aid / development / conservation learn this lesson?