Delivering a global change project
Kate Ferguson, PMER Training and Capacity Development Manager, explains how WaterAid changed the face of its programming system to improve how we think about, manage and feedback on our work.
In 2014, WaterAid began a huge internal change project to simplify and improve how we plan, monitor, evaluate and report (PMER) on our work. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Except we work in 21 countries, have 765 staff, work within many different cultures, and change takes time. Lots of time.
The extensive consultation and cross-organisational engagement required – one of the project’s success factors being to involve many stakeholders – made it a particularly time-intensive project.
What did we want to achieve?
High-quality PMER is essential for effective project implementation, fundraising, accountable programmes and project management. The existing PMER processes hadn’t kept up with our changing programme focus and organisational growth; we weren’t being as effective as we could be. We didn’t have a platform for storing programme information, which made it difficult for:
- Project and programme managers to plan and record progress in a standardised way
- Management teams to oversee progress
- UK teams to have an overview of who was doing what, and find out about projects that needed funding.
To streamline and enhance the way we managed our programmatic work, the PMER project needed to deliver:
- An accountability framework (setting out nine key accountability commitments).
- A clear definition of minimum PMER requirements – the ‘PMER core procedures’.
- A comprehensive set of tools and skills training to support PMER.
- An online programme management information system.
How did we go about it?
I really want to focus on what we learned from rolling out this project, but to do so you need to know a bit more about what we did. So, three years in a nutshell…
In late 2014 we started piloting the programme management information system – Project Center – in the Southern Africa Region. By July 2015, senior management were convinced and the project was signed off. Job descriptions were written, staff recruited and by January 2016 we were tearing up our 180+ page monitoring and evaluation (M&E) guide and re-writing the PMER rulebook. This became the PMER Core Procedures (a happily brief 36 pages) outlining the minimum requirements for country-level PMER.
Next was the capacity development phase, which started with rapid and intense training of trainers in four regions, followed by each country programme delivering their own contextualised training. By March 2017, more than 400 staff were trained.
Although we can’t yet say everything is 100% embedded and working perfectly, we have come so far in the past 12 months. The changes already made are amazing and, although we are continuing to invest in ongoing change management, we have a lot to reflect on.
So what made it a success?
We made leaps and bounds in getting the PMER project into the right people’s discussions. Long-standing staff, who knew how to manoeuvre through internal politics, were able to target others using their institutional knowledge and understanding of relationships and networks, facilitating conversations between the right people at the right level.
UK senior management support ensured very strong UK leadership commitment and championing. They identified the project as an organisational priority, ensuring its prioritisation across UK, country and regional teams. Not only did the UK senior management team sign this off, one of the most ground-breaking and far-reaching initiatives in WaterAid’s history, but also their coordinated support helped to open doors that were causing delays, such as recruitment.
Other approaches to growing commitment included using evidence from the Southern Africa pilot, building demand from other regions and the consistent message that the organisation spent a disproportionate amount of time on planning and reporting rather than working with partners, reflecting, learning and adapting.
It took more than just committed individuals to move the project forward. Having members of senior management as champions created connections with other departmental functions, and brought other teams into conversations which ultimately created the joined-up project. A series of working groups and steering committees stemmed from this leadership approach, elevating awareness and the internal profile of the project. This made it easier for managers to commit their staff and time to the project, and ensured staff with the most appropriate experience and skills were tasked with developing and reviewing technical documents.
If this all sounds perfect and smooth, it wasn't!
There were challenges and limitations, and we had to do a lot of on-the-job learning and adapting.
Some regions and countries had used similar programme management information systems in the past, with mixed results, so some staff brought negative experiences into the new process. We learned to be aware of fears that teams may bring with them, and make space to analyse, address and learn from these before trying to take something new forward.
As I mentioned, the project benefited from involvement of long-standing staff with great relationships. But this brings a great risk of over-dependence on key staff. Our star player moved on before the project started! Fortunately, the project had been given the green light, so we recruited a whole new PMER project team to take it forward. However, this brought the challenge of external staff coming cold to a project, with no institutional knowledge.
Another concern, by no means new to development, was working with consultants. Although staff managed most of the project, we outsourced a few key pieces of work. Being clear on the role of the consultants, who we selected as extremely technically specialised people, helped to prove their value-added and reassure staff that they were not here on a long-term basis. The rapid recruitment of the PMER project team supported this.
What are my top takeaways?
It’s hard to pick just a few, but the main factors to the success of this project were:
- Senior leadership is essential to progress a large change project. Where possible, use leaders as champions, to elevate the project internally and create the space required at management level for cross-organisational engagement.
- Create internal working groups to increase engagement and ownership, generate inputs and provide a sounding board, drawing on groups’ expertise. Spend time establishing each group’s function with terms of references, and be clear early on who should be part of which group.
- Use different types of evidence to persuade staff, recognising that people may need convincing differently.
- Consider that past experiences may cloud pre-conceptions and may need to be addressed before taking people into another new process.
- Recruiting staff on short-term, fixed contracts rather than using consultants gives a clear message that the piece of work is central to what you do, and that the institutional knowledge is more likely to be retained.
So, did we do it?
Did we successfully deliver a global change project? I think we did! It’s business as usual now for WaterAid, but we’re not finished yet. Work to further embed and refine it will continue after the official close of the project in November 2017, when those of us on those pesky but appropriate fixed-term contracts are gone. Change takes time. Lots of time.