IPMA International Project Management Association
20 March 2017 / 8:40

Why COACHING for Development

The 2011 McKinsey-Devex survey of 1210 people in NGO and development agencies showed that only 36% of aid projects achieved their intended impact. The main sources of difficulties in the projects arise from planning, stakeholder management, managing change, procurement practices, monitoring and evaluation. Clearly, from a project management perspective, we see the need to act, since these difficulties are all related to project management.

By improving the project management capacity of the people involved in such projects, we contribute to more projects being successful – which in turn helps a lot of people gain access to clean water, good education or safe housing. Things that many of us are grateful to take for granted. Unfortunately, as the UN’s SDGs[1] remind us, that’s not the case for everyone.

While one could help projects to improve through consulting or training, we have elected to use a coaching approach for two main reasons: ownership and effectiveness. Through coaching, the coachee (the person being coached) takes true ownership of the project’s goals by defining it. This ownership is important for the quality of the result and their motivation levels. Thus the coachee cannot shift responsibility to anyone else for the goals of the project or the coaching. Also, coaching is the most effective way we have to generate or transfer knowledge. Table 1 shows results reported by Whitmore (2002).


Told & shown

Told, shown and experienced

Recall after 3 weeks




Recall after 3 months

10 30


Table 1 Retention of information after different forms of delivery

Coaching describes a supportive relationship between coach and coachee that delivers results. Coachees are stimulated to find the answers to their questions themselves, and often within themselves. The coach supports this process through a combination of careful and focused listening and probing and uncovering questioning.

Project management coaching is a highly effective approach to bridging any competence gap in development projects because it can target the specific needs of the project manager or team by helping them find solutions that work for their project. Depending on the project manager’s needs, the coaching can focus on technical, process or personal needs.

For example, many projects suffer from vague goals. The project manager or sponsor is unwilling to commit to a target since they’re worried they won’t meet it. By staying vague, they avoid being measured. However, it is this very vagueness that dooms the project, since its very vagueness makes it impossible to plan or to control progress adequately. The Project Canvas is a wonderful tool for a project manager in such situations. In our experience, the project manager can easily be coached to learn how to use this tool and clarify the project’s goals at the same time.

Sometimes, the challenge for the project manager lies not in the tools themselves, but rather how to apply them in the particular project with the team that they’re working with for the first time. Here, coaching can help the project manager find ways to manage the project in a professional manner and win the team’s and sponsor’s support for so doing.

Finally, the challenge for the project manager lies in the fact that they face tricky situations for the first time and are not sure how to deal with them. It could be that the project is generating a lot of conflicts that need resolution, or has some challenging stakeholders or simply requires the project manager to overcome their fear of speaking in public to large audiences. Any of these challenges is amenable to coaching that helps the person identify what they need to do to overcome the challenge.

If you have questions about how coaching can benefit your development project or have examples of how it has benefited your project, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

[1] United Nation Sustainability Developments Goals

Contact information: [email protected]


  • as a mentor and coach for young social entrepreneurs i totally agree with your insights, john. in my experience there is something to add: a lot of them lack of ressources to care for their own personal needs while they take over responsibility for social change. do you have any idea how we could support them during their time in those projects?

  • CJ Fitzsimons says:

    Nice to hear from you, Daniela!

    You bring up an additional and important aspect of coaching young social entrepreneurs. Many fall into the trap of putting those they help ahead of themselves. They need to understand and taken on board the idea that they are only able to support others properly when they take care of themselves first. Otherwise, they burn out and nobody is helped. Once they have begun to take this on board then they are, in my experience, open to adopting the tools of Assertiveness, especially that of saying “no” when appropriate.

    Warm regards, CJ

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CJ Fitzsimons

Author of this post

CJ Fitzsimons, PhD has been active in international R&D projects in the electronics, power generation, automotive, life sciences and not-for-profit sectors for 35 years. He led the GPM (German Project Management Association) project that resulted in the book Internationales Projektmanagement – Interkulturelle Zusammenarbeit in der Praxis (2004). He was also a member of the organising committee of the InterPM conference for many years and was a scientific advisor to the project that developed the GPM’s standard book The Project Manager. CJ was Vice President of the International Enneagram Association (IEA) and is CEO of Leadership Sculptor, a leadership and PM consultancy focussing on researchers.