KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Dear Diary (on the importance of keeping a journal)

with 6 comments


(Captain’s log supplemental)

I’ve seen several articles and blog posts and had several meetings lately that inspired me to write about the value of keeping journals, whether personal, project-based or public.

Whenever we are managing a project we almost always have some kind of formal or informal monitoring and evaluation attached to it, even if it something as simple as a workplan with timelines, deliverables and a few indicators to track progress and then some form of end of cycle report . Sometimes we might have a detailed dashboard of indicators and a comprehensive end of project evaluation.

Monitoring, review and reflection is an important input to learning and to making necessary course corrections. But a challenge with traditional monitoring and evaluation systems is that while we might be regularly looking at monitoring data we generally only perform the “reflection” part of learning at a reporting period or at the end of a project cycle. And quite often we focus on “just the facts” not reflecting on why we did things or how we were feeling about them, or about the impact of external events on our plans.

It’s well known that our memories are not entirely reliable. If we are asked to recall what happened in a project we were working on, we are quite likely to forget important facts, but more importantly we are very likely to forget why we did something and how we thought or felt about the project at the time, or to attribute different motivations to our actions or explanations to outcomes with the benefit of hindsight. We might forget some small but important thing we did or about important external environmental influences that affected us and our work. Also when we are asked to recount what happened in a project we are prone to recreate the story to fit our own preferred narratives, both consciously and unconsciously, especially to downplay mistakes and to impute insight when there was none.

One way to help overcome this, to improve the data we have on how a project worked or didn’t, and to improve our knowledge of ourselves and how we work is to keep some sort of diary or journal. Ideally  this should include not only what was done, but also what happened, how you felt about it, why you did what you did, and any important external events or influences that might be relevant. This can give us some extremely valuable data later on when we come to reflect on or even formally evaluate our experience. The act of keeping a journal can also help us be more explicitly aware of what is happening with our work and since it requires some mini-reflection event to write things down – yet quite often we are so busy “doing things” we don’t find the time. It also helps you track the evolution a project and our thinking about it over time.

There have been a few interesting applications of journaling that came up recently – in his recent blog post “Learning on a rollercoaster”, Chris Collison proposed a learning approach where project teams reflect on the emotional rollercoaster of a project life-cycle as a means to identify key learnings from the positive and negative experiences.

Another interesting idea shared with me by a colleague was the “One Second Every Day” TED talk by Cesar Kuriyama who takes one second of video very day of his life as a way of documenting his life to help him recall it better later both in terms of events and feelings, and also as a side effect this helped motivate him to make sure to do something memorable each day.

In another example I was speaking with a consultant working on a pilot monitoring system with WFP which helps track programme progress within a sector globally and help learn from it on an ongoing basis. There’s much more to the approach that I can describe here, but an interesting and unique aspect of their approach was to ask project managers to keep a log of key external events (e.g. elections, civil unrest or new laws) and internal events (project activities, technical inputs, staff changes etc.) over the year and then at the end of the year to try to attribute (subjectively of course) what proportion of the project outcomes (positive and negative) were attributable to the different internal and external actions they had recorded over the year with the idea of getting a sense across different projects of how different factors affect the evolution of the project outcomes as the project is evolving. While this doesn’t substitute for formal evaluation and research it can help capture different project managers views on what actions are most critical to project success (and aggregate them across projects) and similarly how external events influence outcomes over time.

Another examples was how some UNDP offices in the Europe and Central Asia region are using TimelineJS as a tool to capture and display project timelines as a better way of telling the story of a  project both to communicate it (people love stories and timelines as a way to consume information), but also to also help the participants understand it better.

Other tools such as real-time project reporting from the ground such as is done by Akvo and by Global Giving both help make project reporting more human and more interesting, as well as being more up to date. In these approaches – project reporting is much more frequent, but also much less intense and detailed and more varied in format and content, but over time these give a very rich source of data that can also be used for meta analysis to better understand project evolution and larger trends and issues, precisely because they contain more (not less) anecdotal information that when looked at en masse gives valuable insights into how things are working.

And lastly blogging is itself a form of journal keeping – directly if you literally write down what you are working on (“living out loud”), but also of your thinking and its evolution if you are blogging about your ideas as well as your direct work. I find in interesting from time to time to reread earlier blog posts to see if time has solidified my opinions or led me to change my mind, and the blog serves as a record of the range of different thoughts and ideas I have had which would otherwise go undocumented and probably forgotten.

So keep a diary! Write down what you do, what is happening in the outside world, what positive and negative outcomes there are and how you are feeling about it. It will be an invaluable resource for learning later on, for your organization, but mostly for yourself.


Written by Ian Thorpe

August 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Here here! I love your approach to “making corrections” and not just reflecting. There’s a great line in “Schmitt” “Hey I’m drowning here and all you’re doing is describing the water!” My life’s work has been about challenging and supporting students, staff (indeed anyone i meet not just to evaluate but then PLAN to make it better. We’ve just put this into an on-line tool The iAbacus – I hadn’t thought of it as active diary – I am now!

    John Pearce

    August 13, 2013 at 4:47 am

  2. Ian, thanks so much for talking about this ! I think diaries or logs are a really underused way of documenting what is happening in our work. I have some time ago tried to get a client to start using monitoring logs to increase the variety and richness of information available in addition to the traditional M&E. I thought it would be particularly useful to also record meta information, i.e. especially the reliability of a piece of information that they jot down, so later on the person recording it or even a third person gets a much richer memory of what happened along the project duration. I shall try and propose diaries again at the next opportunity !


    August 14, 2013 at 4:22 am

  3. […] Keep a diary with detailed ongoing records of what is happening on the ground both internal and external factors to help generate enough […]

  4. […] writing a blog can make you a better manager‘, while Ian Thorpe was reflecting about the value of keeping a journal, like a blog. Perhaps it’s the welcome mental break of summer holidays that makes bloggers […]

  5. Would you mind if I translated this article and shared it with colleagues and work partners?


    September 5, 2013 at 10:49 am

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