09 Jun 2020

»I don’t give a sh** about your project, I’m leaving!«

European Projects Behind the Scenes (3)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

It was a warm autumn morning. The sun was shining and people were slowly arriving to attend the second part of the two-day consortium meeting. Sleepy, a bit dizzy, but still positively excited due to a tasty dinner and all the relaxed conversations they had last night. The meeting started with almost a half an hour delay, but no one really cared about it. An informal rule states: “In meetings, do what meeting leaders do.”. In the beginning, everything was relaxed and peaceful; a real calm before the storm. Some of us enjoyed the last sips of our morning coffee while the coordinator was presenting key tasks that we have to deliver in the next project period.

But all of a sudden: BAM!  A representative of one partner did not agree with the plan and she declared it very bluntly. She opposed the coordinator stating that due to different reasons they will not deliver all the required workshops. After a short bilateral discussion and exchange of opinions, the coordinator started to raise his voice. He stated quite nervously that everything is written in the project application, that they have signed the contract and that they are obliged to deliver no matter what. A new, strictly bilateral debate followed; the voices were now much louder and suddenly they switched from English to their national language (coordinator and respective partner were both from the same country). This switch made the situation even worse; we were all facing a loud and uncontrolled dispute. We sat there quietly and observing what was going on. The partner representative was not able to control herself anymore; she started throwing things on her desk. She suddenly screamed in her language: “I am leaving, I don’t give a sh** about YOUR project!” And the coordinator replied: “Then leave.” She stood up, passionately shouted a couple of bad words so that we could all hear her and ran out of the room. After a couple of seconds, another representative of the respective partner left; then additional one (there were eight of them altogether). Those of them who were still in the room were looking at each other not knowing what to do. After a minute of nervous hesitation, they also stood up and left the room to look for their colleagues. An awkward silence fell over the room… (to be continued)

In my previous post, I discussed how project meetings can strengthen integration within a project team and enhance and re-establish system stability. However, the story above reveals a different perspective. Inconsistencies, ideological ambiguities, hidden (sometimes even oppressed) disagreements, or personal differences could be a source of tension. Their – sometimes unexpected – manifestations at meetings produce serious conflicts and unbalance the equilibrium in projects.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the anthropologist Edmund Leach studied the rituality of the Kachin society in Burma. Based on his discoveries, he challenged the dominant functionalist accounts of rituals like the ones enhancing cohesion, integration, and worshiping of society. Leach discovered that the religious-ritual complex among the Kachin in no way functioned smoothly: instead, it spurred dissension and imbalance. Their myths were ambiguous, could represent different viewpoints, and could be told in different ways – dependent on which leadership principle they were aiming to demonstrate and confirm; more egalitarian (gumlao) or more hierarchical one (gumsa). Leach showed that the inconsistencies and ambiguities in the Kachin ritual system were fundamental and they did not create social stability, but rather they were an eternal source of tension in their society (Leach 1954).

Typical European project connects individuals and organizations from different countries that belong to a wide variety of research and professional disciplines and sectors. On a subtle level, a continuous negotiation is being carried out between different, sometimes even contradictory interests; be it on an individual, group, organizational, or project level.

An intertwining of statuses, roles, identities, perspectives, viewpoints, cultural characteristics, generational differences, and personal attractiveness or tensions creates a complex formation with its stability being continuously on a stake.

As compared to Kachin people, different and sometimes even opposing explanations and interpretations of project documentation, related tasks, assignments or even ideology itself – which derives from a working programme, financial mechanism or European policy – can lead to disagreements within a consortium; and project meetings can serve as a platform for their manifestation and escalation. Respectively, it is interesting to note a reaction from a project partner after a consortium meeting, which was delivered virtually due to COVID-19 situation: “Virtual meeting worked well. It helps that there are no major conflicts and emotions involved, otherwise it is much more difficult.”

In an important study of the changing significance of circumcision rituals in Madagascar, anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1986) also researched rituals, social integration, ideology, and power. One of his main points is that rituals and ritual symbolism have to be ambiguous because they are representations of a social world that is contradiction-ridden.

We could claim that through project meeting rituality we try to be effective and we aim to legitimize specific formal organization; however, the ideology in the background is fuzzy and ambiguous and as such reflects and brings instability into project structures.

Let’s go back to our story from the beginning and see what followed.

…We were all looking at the coordinator, waiting for his reaction. Very intense moments indeed. After a short whispering with his colleague, he announced that we will take a half an hour break. He left the room and went searching for our missing partners. No one knows what actually happened during this break. However, in half an hour they all came back again and the meeting continued. The coordinator firstly apologized to all of us for having been forced to witness the respective fallout. We did not speak about the challenging topic anymore and the project meeting ended as scheduled and without additional complications.

Epilogue: During the second part of the project, the respective partner did not complete all the required tasks and they minimized their efforts. Nevertheless, the project was successfully brought to an end.

I do not want to make judgments about the quality and success of the conflict resolution. Looking at specific consequences it is obvious that the quality of the activities was lower as described in the work programme. Therefore, due to the passive behavior of the respective partner, the project faced difficulties. From this perspective, the described conflict that escalated in the project meeting was not effectively managed and resolved. On the other side, it is also possible that the coordinator critically assessed the situation and pragmatically concluded that it is better to sacrifice the quality of certain activities on a regional level than additionally extending the conflict, putting on stake the cohesion of the consortium and jeopardizing the achievement of other, more important transnational impacts of the project as a whole.

Irrespectively, in the moment of escalation, it was very clear to all that this is an internal affair between two partners from the same country. Suddenly, this was not a consortium meeting of a European project any longer; at that moment, the consortium did no longer exist.

By physically leaving the meeting the basic rules of rituality have been broken and the foundations of social cohesion have been challenged. They gave a clear signal: “We don’t care about other partners; we don’t care about YOUR project.”

In critical moments as such, projects find themselves on a crossroad; and the outcomes are very much dependent on the empathy, tactfulness, and pragmatism of project leader (and not so much on written formal rules and protocols). In this sense, a European project is like a wedding; you cannot leave after the first quarrel. But this doesn’t mean that you are tied up and not able to break apart due to potential incompatibilities and unsolvable disagreements. If it doesn’t work, it simply doesn’t work – and this for sure requires a clear and determined reaction.

Leach, Edmund R. (1954). Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: Athlone.

Bloch, Maurice. (1986). From Blessing to Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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