How NOT to work with the World Bank and other international financial organizations

World Bank - Photo credit: Shiny ThingsA company can have several objectives beyond the simplistic but correct aim of profit maximization: these can extend to growth into new or foreign markets, the development of a social responsibility program, an increase in market share in its sector, networking for future opportunities, internationalization  etc. or even the necessary fight for survival in these post great recession times.

Business opportunities for medical devices with the World Bank and other IFIs

Working with the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions (IFIs) as well as with the EU can assist companies in all these aspects and can offer a clear venue for new business opportunities. The advantages are easily understood: a huge, global, growing market of opportunities involved in almost all business sectors with internationally recognized tendering procedures and processes that are monitored regularly that also allows for timely project payments in hard currency.

But in my many years spent within international organizations as well as a consultant assisting European companies, be they SMES of large ones, in their internationalization projects with IFI/EU projects, I have come to the conclusion that no matter what the consultant says or does, there is a compelling force, almost a bewitching, that takes a grip on many managers when dealing with WB contracts and other IFIs: these managers, usually competent in their specific fields and known for their business acumen, when dealing with IFIs and in pursuit of internationalization opportunities through and with them, show traits of a stubbornness of purpose and a grim determination towards the undeclared goal of utter and complete failure (and a waste of precious time and money), fuelled along the way with a blindness to not only strategy but even to  plain logic or business sense.

This article therefore is to help these businesses achieve their undeclared objective of total failure in a more professional manner and no longer in a haphazardly way I have witness so far.

Obviously for those companies and consultants who wish to work with the World Bank or with other IFIs in a successful and profitable manner a complex reverse engineering of the process is unnecessary: all you have to do is the exact opposite of what is suggested here in this article.

The first step a manager must take is that of a total refusal to create and define, both internally and externally, a clear and concise image and profile of the company and its field of competence. Only by having absolutely no mission statement or clear strategy for an internationalization project or an engagement at all with the IFIs with clear set goals, objectives, indicators and a sufficient budget will one be able to demotivate one's employees which otherwise might actually take their tasks seriously.

Also, one must take great care in keeping the company's key products and services as hidden, foggy and cloudy as possible. As an example, it would be just too simple to not have a website these days. One must go to greater lengths: a higher level learning institution in the Caucasus that wanted to compete in EU/IFI contracts managed to keep their website running only in a local and rare language, therefore putting up both a barrier of ignorance and stupidity together (actually something  quite hard to do).

Several Mediterranean based companies avoid this tactic but go to a higher level of incompetence: while the website will be in flawless English and also regularly updated, no none in the company actually speaks a foreign language at all or has international project management experience with these institutions to speak of. The recognition of the lack of skilled manpower or the need of training could bring about a change within the company and, possibly, higher productivity. But a capacity for problem identification and solving is, luckily enough, almost always lacking. In a personal account, a representative of a government institution in Italy dealing with agriculture actually refused to even to consider training courses for her staff that was attempting to work with IFIs as she deemed them useless (the training, she said nothing about the staff). In any case, the utilization of skilled staff with international experience and regular training must be avoided like the plague.

The refusal to regularity train or update our knowledge base brings us now to another major possibility for failure: the manager must refuse in the most forceful manner to create a working, practical, realistic short, medium and long term strategy in dealing with the World Bank, or any other type of organization for that manner. The manager not only must without respite refuse any type of requests for a written strategy in favor of the much simpler approach known as "winging it" . A strategy that actually is discussed and evolves from within the company must also be avoided. Such a strategy might actually develop "ownership" and might even convince someone of the opportunities inherent in seeking out a WB tender. Before you know it, the next step would be a request for a long term strategy for engagement with the World Bank. To avoid this, the practical manager always prefers a one-timer when tendering with the IFIs (also known as a "win or bust" strategy). If you play your cards right, any initial failure will not bring about any corrections to your strategy (which does not exist anyway) but will ditch all future attempts at dealing with these institutions at all.

Also the manager must refrain with all the force necessary any attempt to measure progress through indicators, milestones, objectively verifiable indicators and so forth. Any type of visualization of a future strategy through even a Gantt chart must be resisted or the risk of actually someone in the office taking the plan seriously could exist.

The third step to a failure guarantee is to pursue a blind and powerful ignorance of what the World Bank or another IFI actually do, how they do it and who are the key persons within these institutions. The revolutionary maxim (valid for about anything, really) of study, study and then study must be turned around to one of blatant ignorance, absence of strategy and, of course, the pursuit of time consuming runarounds in a self created labyrinth of confusion that will, ultimately, justify your incapacity to engage the Bank successfully, much less win a tender.

While it will be difficult to surpass that fabled entrepreneur who wondered out loud at a meeting how many ATM machines the WB had, we can, if we try, arrive at a decent level of failure: not understanding the project cycle, maintaining blissful ignorance of project and corporate procurement,  confusing roles between the Bank, the borrower and the entrepreneur/company etc. are but a few of the options open to you. To make sure nothing at all would seep into your office, refuse to sign up to any and all info days organized by the Bank or by the so many actors whose mission is actually that to help you understand what the Bank is about, such as Chambers of Commerce, export institutions, SME associations and so forth.

Refusing to spend the minimum time in downloading the procurement guidelines and actually looking at them is pretty good option (otherwise one would actually realize that they are not so complicated as one would have imagined).

If, after all this, you are actually still interested and realizing that you are still making progress, as a last ditch exercise, you could try one or all of the following: refusal to identify and foster a relationship with a local partner in order to bid successfully for  contract in that country or, more damaging, choose a totally unreliable one; do not timely monitor project opportunities when still in a pipeline phase; refuse to delve into such abstract and complicated issues such as that of the  procurement plan that would allow you to actually be able to foresee months or years in advance what business opportunities are going to be available and when and, above all, ditch any attempts to arrive at some form of time management or cost control; refuse blatantly to monitor the opportunities in a regular, timely manner and to your utmost to use a irregular, unprofessional, and occasional approach to tender monitoring. You can even go farther by not appointing a staff member with the responsibility to do this (a typical trick is to spread the tasks out among several staff members without clear instructions or a coordinator) and, if you were to have the resources, do not under any circumstances create a project unit with the sole task of monitoring and following up the opportunities.

If you feel the professional urge to actually follow the most logical path and try and be professional about your job, you can hire a consultant as additional experienced manpower. Usually the result is a professional and timely steady supply of useful information and professional tips that could actually get the job done. Disregard it totally and after a while, fire him or her or the consultant might actually coach you to work in a systematic manner and actually even place a bid for a project while you are holidaying by the beach in some exotic island. The advantage of the firing of the consultant is that you have the blame guy ready and available (even better if a junior).

If, after all this, you actually prepare and submit a bid, don't worry: If you have followed the instructions laid out here carefully (and hopefully added some of your own), you probably forgot to sign something important or produce all the necessary documents or some other stupid  technical mistake that could still disqualify you. But if you are still haven't bought into unprofessional work and have  a remnants of a professionalism about you (and actually someone double-checked the tender even going as far as utilizing a checklist), well, you just might have actually won a tender.

In this case, as you are a slow learner, you have one last chance: just pursue a sloppy work programme with no project management capacity whatsoever, underpay your professionals so that they will leave as soon as they can even for a low paying consultancy for acting as human demining machines in Iraq and don't monitor the project in any case! You might just rival that company that, in Afghanistan, insisted on sending it's reports in Farsi even though the project contract stated that the financial and progress reports would have to be send in English for approval (and, more important for the cash flow, for payment). The result was a time loss that eventually caused an overrun in time and higher project costs (and reports in english).

If on the other hand, after having read this article, you understand that dealing with these institutions and tendering for their projects can be done thorough a mixture of hard work and discipline, learning by doing, common sense and a bit of luck, well, you will be among the happy few. But don't spread the word.

World Bank - Photo credit: Shiny Things