IPMA International Project Management Association
7 December 2015 / 10:24

Helping – how to offer, give and receive help

We are project management professionals, dedicating a lot of our precious time to the advancement of our profession, on regional, national or global level. However, I often think that we are not yet contributing enough to society and those, who are in need. Who is in need? Besides all the professionals working in a business context or in public service, there a thousands of volunteers helping out in humanitarian aid projects, development projects or other kinds of social initiatives. Those volunteers often need to organise something (e.g. dealing with the integration of refugees in local communities in Germany, organising language lessons or education programs), but lack the competences needed for this challenge. Why not support these people in learning how to better organise their activities? We could do that easily as professionals with our competence in project management. Or supporting charities that offer humanitarian aid projects by organising their projects better? Some years ago I helped a charity to organise their projects in Kenya and Tanzania better, or the Water, Air and Food Award to optimise the way, they bring their ideas and strategies into action, and finally to manage an international youth event for a church organisation They all have great ambitions and spend a lot of energy for activities and projects, but often lack the project management competences.


Recently, I found a book of Edgar (Ed) Schein on “Helping” that outlines how to offer, give and receive help in one-to-one, group or organisational relationships. For me, that´s highly applicable for our profession, but let´s first understand Schein´s concept before transferring it into our sphere. There are many words for helping, such as assisting, advising, coaching, enabling, giving, mentoring, offering, supporting or teaching. All require someone to help, and someone to receive that help. It is a social process, sometimes a formal process (e.g. through a doctor) and sometimes an informal offering, such as individuals helping out the neighbourhood after a flooding. Schein summarizes his concept as follows: “Helping is a common yet complex process. It is an attitude, a set of behaviors, a skill, and an essential component of social life. It is the core of what we think of as teamwork and is an essential ingredient of organizational effectiveness. It is one of the most important things that leaders do and it is at the heart of change processes. Yet it often goes wrong.” Schein offers seven principles (and tips related to them) become effective in helping:

  1. Effective help occurs when both giver and receiver are ready (Check out your own emotions and intentions before offering, giving or receiving help. Get acquainted with your own desires to help and be helped. Don´t be offended when your efforts to help are not well received)
  2. Effective help occurs when the helping relationship is perceived to be equitable (Remember that the person requesting your help may feel uncomfortable, so make sure to ask what the client really wants and how you can best help. If you are the client, look for opportunities to give the helper feedback on what is not helpful)
  3. Effective help occurs when the helper is in the proper helping role (Never assume that you know what specific form of help is needed without checking first. In an ongoing helping situation, check periodically whether the role you are playing is still helpful. If you are the client, don´t be afraid to give feedback to the helper when you no longer feel helped)
  4. Everything you say or do is an intervention that determines the future of the relationship (In your role as helper, evaluate everything you say or do by its potential impact on the relationship. If you are the client, you also should be aware that everything you do sends a message. When you are giving feedback, try to be descriptive and minimize judgment. Minimize inappropriate encouragement and corrections.
  5. Effective helping starts with pure inquiry (You must always start with some version of pure inquiry. No matter how familiar a request for help sounds, try to perceive it as a brand new request that you have never heard before)
  6. It is the client who owns the problem (Be careful not to get too interested in the content of the client´s story until you have built the relationship. Keep reminding yourself that no matter how similar a problem is to one that you feel you know all about, it is that other person´s problem, not yours)
  7. You never have all the answers (Share your helping problem)

2How can we help out in our local, a national or even global context? We can make available our competences to people, projects or organisations in need. That may be performed through advising, coaching, mentoring, supporting, teaching or training how to manage projects, programs or portfolios of projects in a humanitarian aid context. It could be the support of an organisation in developing an effective and efficient way of bringing their ambitions into action, from developing a strategy deriving (simple) mechanisms of portfolio management and easy to implement project management standards, methods and tools . There is a big difference between the business context and the context of humanitarian aid projects. We need to down-size our way of managing projects. This is why Schein´s principles 3 through 5 are so important. And always have in mind, that you should help people to help themselves. At a certain point in time, the people need to perform the projects on their own. This is why your help should be temporary and building sustainable capabilities on the client´s side.

IPMA is kicking-off a project in January called “IPMA Coaching4Development”. It aims at being an international platform for those seeking help in their projects and those offering help with their professional project management skills. The first ideas were developed by the IPMA Young Crew and practiced in Nepal and Portugal. Now we want to lever the concept and organise help on a global level. This project complements the IPMA Achievement Award program, recognising excellent projects in the field of Humanitarian Aid Projects and Community Service or Development Projects. There is a lot to do in order to achieve IPMA´s Vision, which strives for “promoting competence throughout society to enable a world in which all projects succeed.”.

1 Comment

  • This can not be expressed better!

    Thanks for sharing this to all. I am sure we will be the helping hand for social development / humanitarian aid projects who are in need. We will do what we can by providing what we know the best.

    IPMA shows once again his will for a better future.

    Looking forward for Kick-off!

    Warm regards

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.