by Nitya Nangalia, Team SEWA

Choosing projects in decentralized organizations

Every IIC team starts the year by stepping in the shoes of a project designer.  Being consultants we come with little context of the organization, have very tight timelines and are tied to massive expectations. The experience of every team differs based on their client. For our four-member team working with the non-profit SEWA Bharat the challenge increased manifold - how do you identify and define your project for the year in a geographically spread, resource-constrained, decentralized organization working on multiple programs at the same time. Based on our 6-week stint of scoping, we reviewed what worked and what would have helped us better in the scoping process and have five major insights - 

#1 Spend time understanding the organization

In the beginning of a consulting project, either the client or consulting team themselves may be eager to produce output from Week I. However, for any incoming team it is important to get enough time to understand the organization and ensuring the client gives you space to do it. If not given time, daily tasks can soon turn you into extended arms of existing work in organization, leaving no way to assess what could have the best fit project for the year based on client needs and the team capacity. We recommend requesting the client some time for a detailed scoping exercise, with an expectation of no deliverables in the meantime. When asked, they do listen - as we happily learnt from our experience.

#2 Prioritise building processes and tools

Once we started work, it was easy to get lost in multiple projects and states. To illustrate, SEWA in one district of Bihar hosts 8 different projects - Advocacy, Social Security, Waste Management, Goat-Nursing, Skill Development, Microfinance, Renewable Energy and Sustainable Agriculture - each working on slightly different models than their sister districts and staffed by people taking on multiple roles. Fortunately, our team spent time building processes which not only saved us from getting lost, but also made it simpler to gather insights by looking at the output.. We recommend the following tools when scoping - 

  • Define roles for all meetings - meeting leads, scribes, translators 
  • Build questionnaires for interviews
  • Use process maps to get a baseline
  • Hypothesize deliverables and estimate effort required for chosen work streams
  • Use a consideration matrix to evaluate the feasibility, sustainability, need and interest of proposed projects
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In a design thinking approach of convergence and divergence in projects, these tools acted as a very useful way to help us converge on similar parameters across different work streams. 

#3 Most people answer the Why - Also address the How

One great learning from our scoping experience is that most of our time was spent in determining what was happening and answering why are we choosing certain projects over others. While we spent time pondering over the feasibility of the project, we did not spend enough time thinking over HOW to make the project possible. One solution our team considers in retrospect is devoting one week of the team’s time in actually working on some tiny area of the project to open up the pandora box of operational challenges yet unforeseen.

#4 Know when to stop. 

There is no end to knowledge gain, but the value added from this exercise can soon diminish given time constraints. For us, scoping soon became a research project rather than giving us more actionable insights, also because we were more document biased than relying on personnel interviews. Given the large scope of work we were taking on for the year and the implementation heavy side of the project, scoping was essential but devoting too much time to it would have reduced time for implementation. Every extra minute given to scoping reduces time for actual implementation.

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#5 Don’t hesitate to change course, even afters scoping

Even though scoping is important, but we recognize that once a team gets started, the nature of problems change very quickly.  We started with six interest areas but the same challenges surfaced in every work stream and diverted our energies on different issues entirely. Our projects transformed within a month of scoping - 

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Remember, scoping is just the first hunch on what you think you will be working on for rest of the year. 

SEWA is a movement for empowerment of women in working in the informal sector. Started in 1972 by Ela Bhatt in Gujarat, the movement has now spread to 14 states across India with almost 2 million women members. The only women’s trade union in India, SEWA believes change comes from the grassroots and is inspired by its members’ belief - ‘We are poor, but so many’.