Riding the project cycle

YOU HAVE BEEN TASKED with a whole project on a broad topic. You must produce, say, a report on innovative agriculture in the Sahel, with the goal of suggesting ways of scaling up effective programs and replicating best practices. Unless you’re an expert in the first place, you will feel overwhelmed. Are you the right cast for this big production? Probably, but you don’t know it because you’re fast-forwarding to the desired outcomes and the happy ending, and missing out on the plot.

A useful analogy for our project cycle flows from considering intellectual products as any other products in a manufacturing cycle. The first phase consists in designing the final output. In our case, that means defining the research topic and its importance, formulating our ultimate goals, and specifying what (material and methodological) means are required to attain them. In other words, you will develop of strategy for tackling a particular knowledge gap with a view to prompting meaningful change. A strategy is the framework that connects available means to an achievable goal. In practice, it may take different forms: an oral pitch to convince a partner to resource a project; a formal proposal; or an internal work plan specifying how we intend to go about the next stage. More often than not, it will entail all three.

Throughout the second phase you acquire the raw materials that will be needed in the manufacturing process. In our work, these are essentially intangible: we’re talking about readings, data, images, observations and narratives. To avoid reinventing the wheel, you want to collect what already exists through a thorough review of any related literature and by engaging people who already know a lot about the subject. On this basis, you can further narrow down what novel material you can generate with fieldwork of your own. That will always be a huge part of your value.

During the third phase, you transform that raw material. As in any other industry, this is where value-added is created, although in our field it refers specifically to “making sense”. Indeed, we don’t merely share information. We analyze, organize, and deliver it to ensure that it meets a particular need, on the part of its end-users, for greater intelligibility on an issue of consequence. This process rests on your analysis of your material, which organizes it into a new, l understanding of the topic. On this basis, you will adjust your initial objectives, decide on the best ways of achieving them, and determine the exact nature of your product (a 30-page report with footnotes, a lobbying exercise with stakeholders, an audiovisual communications campaign, etc.). So this is also a phase where you must plan ahead.

Then comes what you could call “quality control”. Your work will not be judged: it will be examined, discussed, stress-tested, improved. Written drafts will be read, reread, edited, and sent back for rewriting as many times as necessary to reach the right standards and produce the right effects. Other products will be put under similar duress. It’s grueling, but it’s just the price to pay for all those rewards you’ll cash in on when you conclude a truly outstanding project. So just clench your teeth and smile!

The fifth phase is delivery. This can be pretty straightforward if the project’s goal is simply a publication. This would be the outlier, though, as we don’t see publication as an end in itself. In most cases, your analysis will underpin a whole set of possible actions: additional meetings, media engagements, public events, collaborative processes building on your research, and so on.

The sixth phase is marketing: you’ve done great work, now take credit. Self-promotion may feel distasteful, but a meaningful endeavor is one that deserves to be known. This will also create its own momentum by establishing your reputation, which in turns opens doors, prompts feedback, and spurs new ideas.

The last and final stage is the best one: don’t forget to rest, all the more so that you’ll soon be commencing the loop all over again. Life goes in cycles; your professional life in project cycles. That is not just how we sustain, but develop ourselves: you’ll make real progress in terms of skills, productivity, and creativity at every turn of the wheel.

It is important to note that these phases are not firewalled from each other. Analysis starts from day one, strategizing is an iterative exercise, and fieldwork may never truly stop. At the same time, it helps to dissociate them to the extent possible, to know where we are in the process and what we really must be prioritizing. The “manufacturing” metaphor serves that purpose: there is no making a product without a design and raw materials; what has been made must be delivered; and these various sequences must remain in sequence.

Finally, remember that this is not a deserted workshop where you’ve been abandoned all alone. However you look at it, production is always a collective undertaking. You learn from others, and fit into a broader set of processes. Never hesitate to reach out, as it is in everyone’s interest to see you successfully close the circle.

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Illustration credit: Stunt bicycle riding in the 19th century / licensed by CC.

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