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Case study: Supporting new approaches to Project Management in ActionAid and FareShare

Different organisations do – and define – project management in different ways, from a ‘whole organisation’ skill that everyone needs to understand and share at some level, to a specialism practised by a few people on behalf of the many. Whatever the tactic, how well projects are managed contributes to the culture and reputation of an organisation.

At =mc we have been working for over 30 years with charities, arts organisations and local authorities – from WaterAid and the RSC to Canterbury City Council and WWF – on their approach to project working. Sometimes they come to us with a simple request for training. Sometimes, to help them embed a new framework they have designed. And sometimes with a blank canvas to create a bespoke system. Underlying all these requests is the desire to work more collaboratively whether it’s within or between teams, across the organisation, or with others outside the organisation.

So it’s been important that we develop an approach that is both adaptable and robust. The =mc Systems Model has proved to be both of those. A flexible, pragmatic tool, it can be used to manage straightforward projects, such as modifying the annual leave booking system, and ones that are complex or ‘messy’, such as launching a fundraising campaign to deliver an international development project.

Two organisations we’ve recently worked with to help with their project management approaches are ActionAid and FareShare. ActionAid – founded in 1972 – had developed their approach internally and wanted help to embed it across the organisation. FareShare – which only became an independent charity in 2004 – wanted help to develop a bespoke framework. This is what we did.

Supporting ActionAid’s new approach to project management

ActionAid is a leading international charity working in over 45 countries. They work with the poorest women and children in the world, to change their lives for good. Their local staff provide immediate, hands-on support to women and children living on the margins of survival.

The Challenge

ActionAid UK delivers a wide-ranging portfolio of work, from campaigning and lobbying governments and institutions to change policies that exacerbate poverty, to delivering direct services overseas and in the UK. Other staff work to support the organisation – in IT to finance, office management to human resources. Most people’s work involves ambitious targets and tight timescales while maintaining extremely high standards. And underpinning it all is the question: ‘How can we make the greatest impact with the resources we have?’

The challenge for ActionAid was that the diversity of people’s work seemed to have made it difficult to share a common, ‘ActionAid approach’ to how to run projects. And they were also finding it hard to understand the fundamentals of what exactly it was that different parts of the organisation did.

Aware of this, the senior managers developed a new four-stage approach to managing projects that would work across all disciplines: pitch, scope, do, close. They then needed to find a way to roll out this approach quickly and effectively – rapidly up-skilling everyone to use it day-to-day, while taking into account the wide variety of experience in ActionAid of running and managing projects. The answer, the senior managers agreed, was a two-day training

  • One day to introduce the new approach, gain commitment to it, and make sure people were clear on their responsibilities
  • A second day to give additional support to those new to project management

=mc’s brief

The brief from Alison Mack, Senior Strategy, Planning and Performance Manager, was to work in partnership with her to develop a bespoke training that aligned and supported the new approach, and was engaging and relevant to people’s work. Once tested by =mc, she then wanted the training to be run by the in-house team.

What we did

On reviewing ActionAid’s new methodology with Alison, it quickly became clear that it would not be possible to introduce every project management tool that people might find useful. So we prioritised the most important ones to help people gain control of their projects, and identified others that the in-house team could introduce in short lunch time sessions.

We then produced:

  • A timetable of the two days including learning outcomes
  • A programme delivery guide for the internal trainers, which explained how each session would be delivered and the key learning outcomes
  • Bespoke slides, hand-outs and exercises

The pilot programme

The first training =mc co-delivered with Alison. Participants learned when to use the new approach. Using a ‘live’ project they worked through each stage and tried out the core tools. And they had a go at ‘troubleshooting’ a range of negative scenarios, based on the reality of what can happen as a project rolls out.

The pilot was very well received and the participants provided excellent, concrete feedback, which helped us adjust the content and the timings for future trainings. An unexpected fall out was that the pilot prompted more conversations internally between those who attended and their wider teams.

“This new framework has helped me to think critically about what I am being asked to do and suggest improvements. My sponsor has now changed the initial brief I was given in response to my feedback.”

A few months later, Alison delivered the training. Again the feedback was excellent with participants reporting they now felt much better able to explain the rationale for their project, set SMART objectives, manage stakeholders and risk, and keep their project on track.

The approach continues to be rolled out and discussed widely to ensure it is firmly embedded across the organisation.

“I am so pleased that we have been able to design and deliver such an engaging training programme with the help of =mc. The new project management approach has not just introduced a common way of working and a common language. It has also helped provide clarity on when and how decisions get made, and strengthened
accountability and responsibility for people’s work and results across the organisation.”

Alison Mack, Senior Strategy, Planning and Performance Manager, ActionAid

FareShare – Developing an organisational approach to project management

Gaining independence from Crisis in 2004, FareShare is a relatively young national charity tackling hunger through reducing food waste by redistributing surplus food to where it is most needed. They work closely with over 2,000 charities and communities across the UK and have close relationships with big businesses in the food industry, including Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco.

The Challenge

Sadly, FareShare is – and needs to be – a rapidly growing organisation, having expanded by 105% in two years. They work at both a local and national level with many partners collecting and distributing food around the country. Already the logistics involved are immense, but then so is the need. FareShare’s drive is to continue to grow to provide food for the people who can no longer afford to buy it for themselves, and to ensure no food goes to waste. The challenge for was how to manage the rapid expansion and still deliver high quality services.

To date their approach to managing projects had been pretty ad hoc with different pockets of the organisation developing their own system according to the expertise of the people involved – ranging from PRINCE2 aficionados to complete novices. Sharing neither a common language or common approach to this core activity made collaborative working hard. At this point the Senior Management Team identified that they urgently needed to embed an organisational project management framework.

=mc’s brief

Lindsay Boswell, CEO, asked =mc to work closely with his senior team to develop a framework that would work across the organisation – from running local events with volunteers to rolling out a national food collection programme with Tesco’s. First, though, staff needed to be aligned to a common approach.

What we did

We started with a two-day training designed to begin the process of embedding a common language, providing a range of common tools, and introducing the =mc Systems Model. Developed specifically for the not-for-profit sector, the model enables a logical and flexible approach to managing projects in a constantly changing environment, and deals with the reality that far from being straightforward, many projects are in fact ‘messy’.

In the training participants tested the tools and applied the Systems Model to their own projects. And they saw in practice the advantage of sharing a common way of working.

Following the training

Following the initial training =mc worked closely with the SMT to create a bespoke approach to projects that fitted with FareShare’s way of working. Key to this was a clear, simple process and toolkit to deliver any project, while ensuring the SMT’s oversight.

Using the Systems Model as a springboard, the FareShare Project Management Framework introduced:

  • a clear structure for projects
  • a project governance process
  • a common approach to resolving project challenges

We introduced the Framework and Toolkit in a third day of training. Participants discussed how they would apply the framework in their current projects, and beta tested some of the templates. We also looked at common project pitfalls and how to avoid or overcome them.

“You arrived in the nick of time. We urgently needed a unified approach to project management and this is exactly what you helped us to come up with through both the training and the framework. We’re already seeing the results in more effective and more collaborative working but realise that we need to keep working at embedding these systems into the organisation.”

Lindsey Boswell, CEO, FareShare

Find out more

Explore the =mc Systems Model introduced to both these charities in this article on Project Planning Tools.

View all Project Management training available in-house and for individual attendance (public dates) by visiting the Essential Project Management online learning session or the full Project Management training programme.

If you’re accountable for projects in your role, you may also be interested in our Project Leadership programme.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...