The Art of War for Project Managers 1.6 – The Plan is Useless

R.L. Wing "The Art of Strategy"At the end of the first chapter of the Art of War, Sun Tzu gives direction that may make the strongest case for project management in the entire text.

Those who triumph,
Compute at their headquarters
A great number of factors prior to a challenge

He goes on to explain that those who spend less time planning do not succeed. According to Sun Tzu, more planning = greater success, less = greater chance of failure and no planning at all pretty much guarantees you have no shot.

The first chapter of the Art of War ends with Sun Tzu claiming that by observing the time spent in “computation” he can determine whether or not one will succeed in their efforts.

From a PM’s standpoint, this has relevance on a number of levels. The most obvious application would be to the idea of actually planning out a project, and if you follow the rest of the lessons of the Art of War, this is going to end up bringing in many of the elements included in a traditional project plan. Things like risk planning and developing a communication strategy are critical aspects of Sun Tzu’s formula for success. Continue reading

The Art of War for Project Managers 1.5 – The Tao of Paradox

The next section of Chapter 1 starts by introducing one of the core strategies of Sun Tzu’s teaching. In The Art of Strategy by R.L. Wing, the section is translated as:RLWing - The Art of Strategy

Heed me by calculating the advantages
reinforce them by directing outwardly.

This has a very direct relationship to the strategic work a PM does in that it calls upon the practitioner to measure and understand their true position and then “reinforce” (read as spin or manipulate) the perception of that position by how you represent it.

As he moves into the next section, Sun Tzu provides more clarity into how the perceived reality can be manipulated:

Thus, when able, they appear unable.
When employed, they appear useless. Continue reading

The Art of War for Project Managers 1.4 – Study the Measures

Having defined that which is to be measured, Sun Tzu provides examples of things to be considered when examining the five measures. He recommends determining which leader has captured the cultural mindset:

Which leader
Has the Way?

And, which has the poitical and organizational advantage:

Which side has
Heaven and Earth?

Who has the strength and rigorous enough approach to discipline to follow the processes they have defined as their path to success.

On which side
Is discipline
More effective?

Which army
Is the stronger?

According to Sun Tzu, understanding these will help you “know” victory and defeat. This is an important point to spend some time on. The idea is not that if you study these things, you’ll win; but that if you study these things, you will be able to foresee who will win… which leads to a principle introduced later that is (simplified) never take on a battle you have not already won.

Following this thought, if you stick with Sun Tzu, follow his rules, he promises to lead you to victory. If you follow his guidelines, the Art of War will get your back and keep you from harm. However, this is going to include knowing when to back down, when to back away and when to take action in a way that is decisively final. In the workplace, my experience has been that the last part if often more difficult for people to adopt than the backing down. (But there will be much more on this later.)

Sun Tzu also goes on to explain that if you don’t adhere to these rules, whether you use the Art of War or not, you’ve already ensured you will fail. This is another critical point in the Art of War. What Sun Tzu has essentially done is stated that if you stick with him 100%, he’ll guarantee success, anything less than that, and you are not using the Art of War and you will fail.

For those familiar with Scrum, this would be “The Art of War, but…” and it has about the same chances of success as “Scrum, but…” (more on Scrum, but)

This level of commitment is something that appears a number of times throughout the book. It can seem a bit severe when put into practice, but it is something that (IMHO) truly differentiates practitioners of the AOW from those who merely dabble in it. Because war is such nasty business, once you have committed to it, Sun Tzu demands total commitment. At times, this means backing down and at times it can mean pushing further than you might normally. Even taking the time to determine, for yourselves, where the line is in terms of what you are willing to do in order to help the project succeed, can be helpful. As Sun Tzu says, we must know our opposition and ourselves. Often, trick for us as PMs, is to make sure there is a difference between the two.

Quotes listed in this entry are taken from John Minford’s Penguin Books Great Ideas translation Sun Tzu The Art of War (Strike with Chaos) published by Penguin books in 2006. The passage covered in this entry can be found on pages 3 and 4 of the book.

The Art of War for Project Managers 1.3 – Understanding the Five Measures

After listing the five measures (see Chapter 1 – Part 2), Sun Tzu provides an explanation of each of the elements. Throughout the Art of War there are a number of places where Sun Tzu offers an explanation through the use of contrasts and by listing elements which, when grouped together, provide a more complete explanation of the point he is trying to make. If this seems a bit daunting, consider the way the none of the traditional elements that make up a true project plan (Charter, Risk Plan, Communications Plan, Project Schedule, etc.) provide as complete an explanation of what the project entails individually as they do when grouped together.

The Tao (The Way) Continue reading

The Art of War for Project Managers 1.2 – The Five Measures

In the Art of War, as soon as Sun Tzu finishes explaining how serious the topic of war actually is, and how much careful examination it requires, he begins explaining how to go about studying it.

2,500 years ago Sun Tzu came up with a list of five things he said had to be considered first and foremost when one was going to engage in conflict. He referred to these as The Five Measures. They are:

Method Continue reading