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Managing life-changing projects and programmes: lessons from international development

Pot of coloured pencils and stack of textbooks on table in front of blackboard with chalk drawings of planets and solar system

How did a not-for-profit organization – set up in 2008 to bring quality education to rural Uganda – achieve 1,000 students enrolled in three schools employing 100-plus staff in just over 10 years?

And what lessons can this teach us about running successful projects and programmes?

Annabelle Chauncy OAM (Order of Australia), one of the co-founders and now CEO of Australia’s School for Life, harnessed her belief in the ‘transformational power of education’ with a vision ‘to educate poverty out of existence’.

In practice, this means building and operating schools that support what the community needs and ultimately helping people to help themselves. Alongside education, other change programmes have included improving nutrition, drinking water, healthcare and changing mindsets.

But how does such an initiative begin?

Creating a vision

Though the detail has evolved over 10 years, along with a need to flex and adapt, School for Life’s powerful vision of delivering quality education hasn’t.

At the core of this vision was the concept that any project or programme’s outcomes needed to empower local people.

Annabelle says: ‘The biggest thing for me was getting in on the ground, listening to the locals as they know what works and what doesn’t and getting buy-in from the community. This approach emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs of people who are both close to a project or programme of work and who will be affected most by it.’

Meeting the challenges

Annabelle Chauncy, CEO of Australia’s School for Life, with some of its studentsSchool for Life had to deal with multi-faceted challenges across two countries. In Australia it was about getting access to finance, developing a brand, building trust with people, having resilience, tapping into and creating networks, and sustaining fundraising year after year.

In Uganda, gaining the trust of the community, working with them on what they wanted and getting them involved in the construction were among some of the operational challenges.

After the first school was built in 2011 and the organization secured new capital, the next challenge was making a step-change in the size of the school’s operation and ensuring there was great leadership from people who were excellent communicators, vision-focused and doing the right thing for the local school children.

The need to raise more money meant Annabelle spending more time in Australia rather than Uganda. Therefore, she had to manage the ‘big vision' for those working on the ground by chunking it into key programmes of work that teams needed to achieve within a set period.

However, she maintained regular ‘check-ins’ with the people on the ground and ensured there was ‘passion and resilience in the team to get things done and stay aligned to the purpose’.

Measuring outcomes and value

As the programmes have progressed, School for Life has become very outcomes-focused, with clear key measures for quality education such as teacher performance, student attendance, parent engagement, gender balance and capacity of teams where additional professional development is needed. The realization of these benefits is much more than simply building classrooms or counting the number of children who attended the school.

Ultimately, the key outcome measure is what Annabelle calls ‘exit’: the ability for the schools to carry on without School for Life.

Annabelle added: ‘We thought we were building schools, but we were really building communities, mobilizing thousands of people. The schools act as a hub transforming everything; adults getting literacy skills and financial literacy. The school is a beacon of light for the community including counsellors for all the additional social issues we were confronting.’

The people factor

Annabelle is clear about the importance of building a strong team: ‘You need to make sure you have the right people around you – with the right managers – without getting too bogged down in the detail. You can’t do everything yourself, so you need a bunch of amazing people who run the initiatives,’ she says.

The future

Next on the agenda for School for Life is converting the high school into a boarding facility for 600 students: a project for the next 12-24 months. After that, the next goal is creating 30 schools to educate 10,000 children; creating the next generation of leaders in Uganda and, in time, in other developing countries also.

Annabelle adds: ‘There’s so much complexity in this as, ultimately, we’re dealing with people’s lives and we need to maintain the ability to pivot, adapt and have a flexible mindset while making informed decisions based on data.’

Tom Lynam was in discussion with Annabelle Chauncy OAM and James Bawtree from PMLogic, AXELOS partner and Australian strategy execution company that collaborated on a design thinking workshop focused on solving some of the future challenges faced by the School for Life.

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