Inception Reports

One reason to use international consultants on international development projects is that these technical experts and strategists bring a broader view and, even without the contextual knowledge of a local consultant, a better, experience based idea of what works and what does not.

Knowing what will work and convincing the all stakeholders to accept and cooperate with it are two different things. When the situation is volatile, changes in staffing or in the entire administration (which is not unique to the developing world) often requires adaptability and experience.

Quite often, donor field staff often recognize their limited leverage to convince stakeholders and higher ups and the public who often do not understand why an agreement does not guarantee enthusiastic and efficient compliance.

For these reasons, many Technical Assistance engagements will benefit from an Inception Report for all concerned in order to:

  1. assess the original plan for the TA against the current realities on the ground. These realities often change from the time the project was conceived and initially planned and to the time of the implementation;
  2. give the implementing consultant/firm the opportunity to identify any gaps or omissions or outright mistakes or misconceptions made in the planning process and provide recommendations to address them, which usually leads to a re-opening of negotiations to
  • modify the ToRs
  • modify the estimate of the level of effort, and
  • confirm the outcomes expected of the project;
  1. give the contractor/donor agency/country client to have a final say before the Technical Assistance engagement proceeds

While this should be anticipated, budgeted and accepted as part of the project, often, the minute the consultant/firm arrives at the mission destination, the technical assistance has begun. Project managers without subject matter expertise often expect that work can begin immediately to complete all of the tasks in the very tight time frames set out in the original planning documents.

Frequently, we encounter resistance to proposed Inception Reports with the pushback that they are merely an annoying task that gets in the way of doing what is required to complete all of the tasks required in a timely manner.  When we encounter this resistance, we begin backing away from a project because we know from experience that where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be fire. No firefighter approaches and begins a firefight without a fire ground assessment, and a review of planned tactics and strategy with supervising officers before pulling hoses from the truck.

The first tactic: ensure there’s water in the tank and a hydrant nearby before pulling hoses from the truck.

Inception Reports can be relatively simple documents or an exercise from Hell

  • The simple version is one which confirms that the original plan, makes sense, and states so in a straightforward statement with no reproduction of the original planning document. The simple version states only the gaps, omissions and errors in planning addressed with a description of how the consultant/firm will address those problems, plus any changes to the level of effort, resources needed and the budget.
  • The version from Hell is where the client expects a re-writing of the entire planning document inclusive of all of the gaps, omissions and errors, etc. It is a nightmare to complete with all of the other task related pressures to complete the assignment on time.

More often than not the demand for a complete re-writing of the planning document is made when

  • the client knows that the original planning was flawed to begin with, or
  • the donor’s/client’s project manager has little experience or confidence, and/or
  • the project manager has inadequate field experience carrying out the implementation of a similar type of technical assistance in the field, or
  • the project manager lacks confidence and autonomy or experience (everybody is a begginer at some point in their career)

This leads to a great deal of grief for the consultants and team leaders who must carry out the TA.

If we were not consulted on the feasibility of the ToRs, the budget assumptions, time assumptions, and reality sought in the deliverable, we require an opportunity to first produce an Inception Report during the negotiation period prior to the contract being signed. Otherwise, we may choose to decline your opportunity and protect our brand from being involved in a doomed project.

This requires a preliminary mini-contract to cover time, materials and expenses. The pricing will be quoted in accordance with our best estimate of time required, materials, travel and any other incidental expenses (translations, toll calls, special analysts, local mission days, per diems, travel, etc.) to produce it. The client should specify which is preferred, in advance:  either in the simple form or the frillier version, which is possible and will take extra time and money but it won’t make the Inception Report any better.

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