The Common Denominator in Project Management

In the field of project management and international development, it is normal to work with different sectors and in various countries. Projects can be diametrically opposed, either because of the timeframe for project delivery, or the level of expertise in a certain, complex field that might be required. Projects might entail different sectors, stakeholders, budgets and timeframes. However we’ve identified a common denominator between, say a Climate Change Adaptation project in Nepal, a Road Sector Technical Assistance project in Uganda, and a Supply Chain Mapping of the Wind and Electrical Storage Sector in Mexico. The answer is people, which might sound obvious at first, but too many times the role that people play is overlooked. People are key to success, therefore having a people-centred approach can be extremely beneficial and rewarding.

Project Management has become a buzzword with several definitions, that come in any way, shape, and form. The general definition of project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements (Project Management Institute, 2018). Let’s take a look at what we have learned from the people-centred project management approach.


By following a people-centred approach, we understand why it’s of paramount importance to be able to communicate effectively. As social beings, our lives and work highly depend on social interactions, which can ultimately be structured differently depending on the country and cultural heritage. By focusing on people and effective communication, and by placing the emphasis on cross-cultural understanding and respect, we strive to achieve the most effective communications to deliver projects.

Throughout a project, a simple misunderstanding can be the cause of delays and conflicts. Here are key tips and skills applied in a people-centred approach:

  • Flexibility and language skills help us adapt to different situations and cultures and allow us to collaborate effectively with a wide range of actors.
  • Interpersonal and people-skills make us distinguish when and with whom a more formal and structured communication is required, or simply when a more informal conversation would do the trick. A more colloquial communication can help build trust and strengthen the relationship. Nevertheless, if used in the wrong context, it could jeopardise how you’ll be perceived as Project Manager. Understanding that there is no one set way to communicate as Project Manager is the most valuable lesson.

Timeframe flexibility

Deadlines, one of the most used *and important* words in Project Management. To manage a project, it is imperative to work with deadlines in order to complete all tasks as planned. Nevertheless, in a people-centred management approach, we try to build, what Project Managers will call time tolerances. We realise that everyone has their own work pace and commitments. It is recommended to include this into your planning process if possible. By adjusting these tolerances, a Project Manager can make the word deadlines more people-friendly and a bit less scary.

‘Work pace’ relates not just to individuals, but also applies to specific countries. It is important for a Project Manager, to take under consideration local festivities, public holidays, and working days. This may vary from country to country, and when considered in advance they can enable the Project Manager to allow the necessary timeframe flexibility for all stakeholders involved in a project. Getting to know more about the individuals and the countries or contexts we collaborate with can enable a positive, bottom-up approach, which ultimately stimulates deadline ownership, for all actors involved in the project.

Care to the Core

A Project Manager should never forget that we work with human beings, people that have different, personalities, attitudes, dreams, and fears. It is indeed challenging for a Project Manager to incorporate this into a project planning process effectively.

By acknowledging the human factors that are involved in the project, the professional relationship will dramatically feel an improvement, fostering better communication and trust. A Project Manager will often spend several hours communicating with partners, clients, team members, and so on. In all communications, an individual will leave some ‘breadcrumbs’ of who they are as an individual, outside of their specific role. It is for the Project Manager to keep an eye open and pick those breadcrumbs up in order to move on from a top-down and superficial relationship to actually getting to know better the people that are involved in the project.

Despite the obvious challenges and barriers the process might entail, this can help build a strong, long-lasting relationship not just with the individual but potentially with many organisations. It can also strengthen the level of trust among project members, making it easier for a Project Manager to communicate with them in the future.


Some of these lessons may seem obvious for a Project Manager to pay attention to, however they are often neglected or overlooked superficially in the planning process. Our experience handling complex projects in different countries and in contact with different cultures tells us that it is extremely important for a Project Manager to include the obvious into the planning process and always adopt a people-centred approach. Setting clear procedures that consider and respect each individuality can be time-consuming, but it pays back as it can smoothen the implementation of a project, and even help achieve greater results. We should never forget that the common denominator in all projects we work on, is people, and that ultimately, we work for the benefit of us all.

Francisco Riera – Coordinador de Desarrollo Social y Pobreza Multidimensional