Sanele Nhlabatsi has recently completed her Global DBA – Doctorate in Business Administration in Programme and Project Management at SKEMA Lille campus. She is a recipient of a thesis research grant from the Project Management Institute (PMI) in the USA to complete her research thesis on Navigating complexity to build resilience in international development projects.  

Tell us about the PMI project?

There is limited research on how to navigate project complexity and build resilience in the international development ecosystem. This study provides a conceptual and practical basis for the application of project complexity approaches, by identifying what makes International Development Projects (IDPs) complex and difficult to manage, and how the application of complexity adaptive approaches can improve project delivery and build resilience.  

What are the main outputs and results?  

The study explored the factors contributing to complexity in ID projects, determined the effectiveness of PM practices as a response to complexity, and developed a Response to Project Complexity (RPC) framework. Qualitative data was collected from four African projects: one infrastructure development project in Ghana and another between Botswana and Zambia. Plus, a capacity building project in Nigeria and another in Zimbabwe. A cross-case analysis was conducted to identify common complexity factors across the projects.

The findings revealed that indeed ID projects are complex, context-dependent, with peculiar characteristics resulting in interrelated structural and sociopolitical complexities, which in turn manifest into emergent complexities, contributing to project disruptions.

Of significance, the research validates the argument that the application of standard project management (PM) practices based on objectivity, predictability and control are inadequate as a response to complexity in ID projects. Highlighting the need to identify interactions between dimensions of complexity in addition to PM practices, integrating awareness and adaptive capacity as a response to complexity.

A focus group workshop in Washington DC with international development expert practitioners was subsequently conducted to improve and validate the RPC framework developed.

What were the biggest challenges and how did you cope with them?

The data collection process was delayed by COVID. Obtaining project gatekeeper endorsement to include their project as a case study was an uphill battle. I did not give up, I religiously followed up, and looked for people within my network to assist by advocating on my behalf. In some instances, it took up to 3 months to finally provide the go ahead. Interview participants also deemed ring-fencing time for research interviews a low priority in the face of individual and organisational economic and health impact of COVID. Even though lockdowns restricted air travel I was eventually able to within African countries. Interviews with respondents in the USA, Europe and Asia were conducted virtually.

What are the outcomes of the project?

A notable outcome of the project is the development of the conceptual Response to Complexity (RPC) framework. This framework captures the intricate interactions between dimensions of complexity with project management practices, integrating proactive awareness, absorptive and adaptive capacity as a response to project complexity, building resilience capability.

The results of one of the four case studies were presented at the 2023 European Academy of Management (EURAM) Conference in Dublin where the paper was well received.

How will this project have an impact on the very stakeholders and society at large?

The significance of this research is its timeliness given the need to address the challenges faced by international development projects given increased demand for development funding amidst increased global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and others facing both the global north and south. The pressure for increased value for money from funders is highly likely to tighten the criteria applied to decision-making on projects funding in the near future. This potentially has a negative effect on the drive to achieve the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).  

This research contributes to the project complexity body of knowledge that advocates for change amongst policy makers, funders, researchers, and practitioners in the international development ecosystem to rethink their basic assumptions in alignment with complexity challenges that impact projects – and instead identify, embrace, and adopt adaptive strategies to better navigate complexity building resilience within the ecosystem. It is critical for project stakeholders to have resilience as a mindset and philosophy from the beginning and throughout the life of the project to withstand the complexity shocks.  

The practical implications are that various stakeholders in the international development project ecosystem better understand project complexity in their specific context and become better able to evolve, adapt and build resilience to improve performance and sustainability of interventions. Enabling active partnership participation of country custodians to chart their own future with project management approaches that empower local communities to develop their own solutions to their problems in alignment to their context characterised by richness, interconnectedness, and intricacies of their lived experiences.  

What are your plans for the short and long-term future?

In the short term, I plan to publish my research and disseminate it across academic and project management professional forums, journal articles, academic conferences, practitioner conferences, webinars, among others.

And, in the long term, I hope to influence key stakeholders in the global international development sector – policymakers, project funders, project owners, project designers, and project implementers to apply resilience approaches as a response to context-induced complexity, improving project performance, ultimately contributing to sustainable development.

What advice would you give for writing a competitive winning project proposal?

I recommend selecting a research topic that is relevant to current challenges faced within the global landscape, especially in areas that are under-researched. Then, ensure the development of well-researched objectives, data collection and analysis methods, and formulate a detailed project plan featuring clearly identified activities, time frames, and an associated budget.

It is also crucial to articulate how the research will contribute both to the development of subject matter theory and the practical contribution for professional development. Finally, I recommend working closely with an advisor that has extensive experience in the chosen field of research, and who has a keen interest in the outcome and impact of your research, fostering collective benefit realisation.

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