Tuesday, July 27, 2004

 

Sorting out the role detail with Wassim

Dear Wassim,
I have now looked through the documents you sent me and have a number of comments to feed back to you, mainly at this stage on the Outreach proposal, both general and specific. Firstly, as I said before, I am honoured that you have approached me to take on a senior role in this project. I am both keen to take it on and confident I can provide the expertise and experience you seek.

How we might best carry this forward is subject to some practical issues that I will come to later. On the proposals themselves, I take it that these effectively represent the outcome of the workshop held earlier this year just after I had left NMSI. This will imply that there is a fair degree of consensus at this point about the broad brush-strokes picture which the documents set out. That, at any rate, is the basis on which I have read through them. If there is any further material recording the workshop which you feel may be germane, especially to defining the Syrian, client view (with which I am now wholly aligned) then I would find it useful to get these as well. For example the Outreach document identifies children between 4 and 16 as one primary target audience, with children in family groups as another and children in school groups as the third. Given the clear social aspirations which HE Mrs Assad holds for this project, and the high degree of importance placed on the family in Syria, I myself would have recast these categories as: children (4-16) in family groups, children (4-16) in organised groups, children (11-16?) unaccompanied.It reads like a small distinction, I know, but would make a difference to how the project is structured and marketed. Likewise it would useful to clarify the relative importance of reaching audiences in particular rural and urban areas. I have jotted down a good number of comments that can wait till later because they are fairly detailed but the following stood out for me:

The documents are based on the assumption that what works and the way things work in the UK will translate to success in a very different environment. Of course it is difficult for NMSI to do otherwise than be generic at this stage, but it highlights the need to address in detail many aspects of the specification to check they will work for different Syrian circumstances. You will know better than I, for example, how practicable a water-based interactive exhibit would actually be in some more remote rural areas. Likewise I can’t believe that marketing an initiative like this would work as it might in the UK. The proposal documents take a wholly secular approach, appropriate for the UK but perhaps needing to be modified somewhat for Syria, where faith and world-view (excuse my simple understanding here) are more closely intertwined.

I still look for a clear high-level vision statement for this project. Something that can appear at the front of documents, on project office walls, in interviews with media, in statements to public meetings. Not intended as anything more than a first pass I offer the following: to foster in young people and families in Syria a deeper understanding of, pride in and active responsibility for themselves, their culture, their country and the world.

Project objectives should be measurable wherever possible. NMSI should be encouraged to explain how a range of clear performance indicators would be developed for and applied to the Outreach project.

Out of this project will emerge intellectual property – designs, methodologies, data, software infrastructure, etc - which Syria as paying client should own, and any contract with NMSI should make this ownership clear. In the likely event that Syria is looking to reduce the NMSI fee costs, some or all of the rights to this intellectual property can be used as a negotiating lever. I would generally recommend a time-based or retainer fee structure rather than one that is based on a percentage of final costs. The latter, while quite normal for architectural projects, does risk high levels of tension between supplier and contractor over inevitable cost variations and the motives behind them.

The Outreach proposal deals understandably more with Product (what it will be) than with Process or Programme (how it will run). The Syrian project team will need to feed aspects such as logistics and marketing (how people will actually learn about, book, attend) back into the NMSI working brief at an early stage. Local marketing input will be required by the project team.

I was surprised not to see any great emphasis in the Outreach proposal on the potential for web-based creation of communities of interest around the project. I suspect there is a role for at least an intranet (ie specific to this project, highly patrollable and with limited connection to the wider internet) by which children and families can exchange learning experiences, engage with their shared Syrian culture, and carry on debate and interaction long after the Outreach parade has gone by. Perhaps this could be one visible legacy of the project – a dedicated Children’s Project intranet terminal left behind everywhere the Outreach project visits.

Many of these points touch on the input required from a Syrian project team, and this leads onto the role we have discussed. Although we have not gone over it in detail, in conventional project management terms in the UK, I believe what you seek would be termed Senior Responsible Owner, and I set out below the following key, high-level functions that this role usually delivers. You might wish to confirm, add to or amend any of these functions to set out more precisely what you have in mind.

Ensuring that the project is subject to review at appropriate stages.

Development of the project or programme brief and business case.

Development of the project or programme organisation structure and logical plans

Monitoring and control of progress

Formal project closure
Post implementation review

Problem resolution and referral.

I mentioned that this raises some practical issues for me which I hope we can resolve. I note that the Outreach project has a 29-week development timetable and would need a year’s run-time to generate the feedback required for Children’s City. Children’s City itself has 36-month schedule from start of masterplanning to opening. Assuming an amount of development work can be done in parallel, I would see at least two years in which the SRO role would be central to the project. As I said when we spoke, unfortunately I do not feel I can move my family from London over the next two years. In comparison with the aims of the Children’s Project the reasons look paltry indeed, but they are important to me. My son (17) has won a place at a particular London college to do a course on which his heart has been set, and he starts there in September. My daughter (20) is just about to start a new job in a London bank, in which I hope she can build a career. My wife works for one of London's major art galleries creating important and respected educational programmes, to which she is completely committed. It would be too much to expect them to put this on hold or give it up entirely, and I know from experience that my son will need support and encouragement through at least his first two years at college, so cannot just be left to his own devices. Although all three of them would love to visit Syria, to move there entirely for a period would, I am afraid, set back my children’s futures too much.

On the other hand, I quite see that the role you have in mind cannot be managed from London. Proper time must be spent in Syria building the core team, advisers and suppliers, dealing with stakeholders, and becoming more highly attuned to Syria itself, and how its systems work. The role must be seen clearly to be acting in Syrian interests, and that can only be done by being present in Syria, so ideally I would be there permanently. That, of course, means that I would be away from my family for much of the time, something neither I nor they relish, for both practical and emotional reasons. So I would hope you will be amenable to discussing some sort of arrangement whereby my time can be split regularly between London and Syria. I would not wish you to agree to any arrangement you do not feel will work, so I look to you to indicate firstly whether this is feasible at all, and if so what sort of balance of time spent in Syria and UK might be acceptable. I had sketched out a draft schedule of three weeks working/living in Syria, one working in London, and one of time off, if that is a helpful starter. Assuming we can come to some agreement on the above, there are numerous other matters – to whom does this role report; what arrangements would there be for transport, both international and within Syria, what status does the role have (in terms of getting things done), does the project have any offices, for example – on which it would be valuable to get some information from you. Please be assured that I very much want to make this work, and remain as excited about the Children’s Project as I was on my visit to Syria.

Best regards

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