Over the years, knowing PMBOK® has become imperative in becoming a certified project manager in the technology industry. The processes, procedure, tools and techniques discussed in PMBOK® assists a project manager to deliver positive outcomes. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, also focuses on guiding the project manager (“the general”) toward a positive outcome by cluing into the environment in which he operates. The similarities of essential philosophies in both of the texts intrigued me. A project manager must strive to deliver, via his team, an outcome that is accepted by all stakeholders, making it a win-win for all of them. A project manager necessarily has to ensure that the project continues to contribute to the business objectives, to keep adding value to the stakeholders’ interests, and hence to help the organization gain market share.
The similarity was striking and deserved more analysis, which made me ponder over my own work experiences. I could not fail to notice that we live in a world that depends on the positive outcomes, and the metamorphosis of the “war” metaphor had occurred. The marketplace, in my mind, had been transformed into a battlefield. The battle was no longer for territory. As the organizations were battling for growth in market share, they strived for positive outcomes through various strategies and fought to create products and services to increase the market share.
Project Manager (The General)
Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Asoka, Napoleon, and the list goes on—it doesn’t take much historical knowledge to agree that history is full of tales of generals who have conquered the world, and others who are recognized for their strategic and tactical skills on the battleground.
They had several armies and thousands of soldiers at their command. They conquered lands, were victorious against the strongest, expanded their kingdoms, and in turn, established rule over millions. Expansion of the kingdom was one of the only ways of establishing supremacy in the times they walked this earth. These men were equipped with modern artillery, they had armies of skilled professional soldiers, and they were master strategists and tacticians. These men are known for how well they conducted the wars. The men led several battles with thousands of soldiers and several hundred types of weapons. There were times when the task at hand was deadly. Sometimes their existence was threatened, and in the other times, it was an easy, straightforward planned act of war.
Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, for such generals with the purpose of giving them a methodology for conducting war. In addition to the methodology, this book states the qualities that a general needs to have to ensure victory in war. Replace the term general from the situation above with project manager, and, given that a project is about achieving positive outcomes amid conflicting needs and interests and perhaps lead to the rise and fall of stakeholders, the leadership qualities that Sun Tzu states that a general should have are also needed in a project manager.
The role of a project manager varies from a facilitator—one who has to ensure that all elements contributing to success come together to push the project toward success—to a warrior, a dramatic term that signifies the situation to which a project manager is often exposed. While a facilitator is someone who makes sure all the activities are coordinated in a project, the warrior has to ensure the battlefield is set in such a way that the result is the victory.
About the general, Sun Tzu says, “The general is the bulwark of the state; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the state will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the state will be weak.”
A project manager is a corporate world general.
Sun Tzu also states that, “The commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity,benevolence, courage, and strictness”, indicating that a “leader should be wise (in making decisions), trustworthy (should inspire trust), caring (taking care of the team), courageous (to make tough choices), and strict (in ensuring compliance).”
Sun Tzu on Plan
A project manager cannot deny the importance of planning, Sun Tzu, on the other hand also puts emphasis on the importance of planning and specifically about the planning skills of a project manager. He says “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought,” meaning that a project manager must carefully elaborate on the planning aspects of the project before starting the project. A project’s success or failure depends on sincere and intelligent planning.
Sun Tzu on Agility
Against the popular notion, agile is not a new concept. It is our insistence on using scientific methods that often leads us to forget the wisdom of the ancient world and to not draw any lessons or inspiration from it. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu has said that “One should modify one’s plans according to the favor ability of circumstance.” This is a very powerful idea in the agile world, where flexibility is the major advantage one can draw on in modern products and application development.
Sun Tzu Proactive Planning
Anyone, who has worked in the industry knows the importance of being proactive. However, to plan proactively takes a great amount of skill, experience and insights, apart from having a skilled team.
Sun Tzu has said that, “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted”, indicating that a project manager must plan the work, and then work the plan. A skillful project manager will plan ahead and prepare beforehand to deal with all potential risks. He then stays on top of the execution of this plan.
On Scope Verification
He then again says, that, “The general should rely, not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable,” meaning that Scope verification helps in ensuring the solutions delivered are consistent with the desired project outcome. Scope verification is a proactive approach that helps in identifying the project delivery, making sure the organization’s positions are satisfactory and unassailable.
Sun Tzu on Schedule and Estimation
The Art of War states that, “In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory”. To a project manager, this is a discussion about the importance of defining the project activities at a granular level, at which they can be assigned, tracked and accounted for, involving measurements, estimations, and calculations.
About schedule, Sun Tzu again reflects on the importance of monitoring and controlling the schedule by saying that, “If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the state will not be equal to the strain”, which clearly means that the delays in the schedule will have a bearing on the resources of the project and hence the organization.
On Cost Management
Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, says that, “The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy; neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice”. This is a very powerful statement that hints at the importance of the right level of knowledge and skills in a project manager to ensure that estimations are reasonably accurate.
On Procurement Management
Sun Tzu has said that, “We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors”. This is a very clear opinion about the suppliers, partners, and products a project manager must choose to ensure that the project is a success.
Enterprise Environmental Factors
The environment in which a project is executed, deeply impacts its outcome. Therefore, a project manager must keep the organizational environment in mind while designing, strategizing, planning, and making any decisions about the project. These influencing factors can be related to the internal or external environment of the performing organizations. Many such factors, either directly or indirectly, become risks, issues, and constraints of a project. Some of the prominent examples of these factors are organizational culture, the organization’s structure, processes, marketplace conditions, regulatory and quality standards related to the business, national, regional and global political climate, availability of skilled human resources in the organization and in the market, and the organization’s policies related to customers, people, projects, and project management.
Sun Tzu also discussed the environment in which the general operates and stated that it has a direct impact on the victory in war. In the Art of War, he has stated that, “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger”. Sun Tzu has emphasized that organizations tend to develop the cultures unique to them and manifest in numerous ways – such as shared vision, values, norms, beliefs and expectations, policies, methods and procedures, relationships with authority, and work ethics. The organizational culture and norms ensure that the project team follows authority and works toward the vision.
While discussing the Moral law, let take up another statement from the Art of War, “Fighting with a large army under your command is no different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals”. While setting up a project’s organizational structure, drawing communication plans and setting up mechanisms, when clarity is established, a project team of any size can be managed. Provided that each team member plays by the rules as per project, organizational policies and acts as a team player.
This is a summary of the book ‘Project Management Battlefield’, also by Puneet Kuthiala.