by Rick Brenner
Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields, including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.
Until very recently, ground war tactics emphasized control of the movement of forces and materiel. In this style of conflict, the flanking maneuver is a way of cutting off access of forces to resupply, and cutting off their ability to advance or retreat. In a typical flanking maneuver, force is applied to one side of the main opposing force, or perhaps to its rear, where the opponent's forces are less well protected. By contrast, a frontal assault applies force to the strongest face of the opposing configuration.
solely of plans
for "frontal assaults"In project management, we also perform flanking maneuvers, but we use other names for the tactics. Military flanking maneuvers, however, are often more sophisticated than those of project managers. We can learn much from studying even basic ground tactics.
When we encounter an obstacle in a project, we have three basic choices.
- We can quit
- In the military domain, this can be surrender, retreat or withdrawal. In project management, we cancel, restart, downscope or possibly declare success.
- We can solve it
- In the military domain, we mount a frontal attack, possibly with enhanced forces. In project management, we add staff, budget or schedule.
- We can circumvent it
- In the military domain, we execute any of a variety of flanking maneuvers, or we bypass the position. In project management, we find a workaround, which might involve a redesign or using an alternative technology.
Project plans generally consist solely of plans for frontal assaults. We decide how we'll solve the problem, and we prepare a plan that implements that solution. We make few, if any, preparations for flanking maneuvers or alternatives of any kind that might be useful if we encounter obstacles. When we do, we call such plans "risk management," and too often, they're sketchy.
Military plans are usually more sophisticated. They include plans for acquiring intelligence, which is essential if adjustments are required. And they include possible adjustments too.
A more sophisticated project plan has resources allocated to three elements:
- Gathering and fusing intelligence
- Even though the plan focuses on a specific approach, we study alternative approaches right from the outset. If problems develop, we already know a fair amount about alternatives.
- Executing alternatives in parallel
- By executing at least one alternate approach in parallel, we facilitate collecting intelligence, and ensure a running start if the favored approach gets stuck. We might even provide insights that are useful in the favored approach.
- Looking far ahead
- A reconnaissance team working far ahead of the main body of the current effort searches for and provides early warning of hidden difficulty or unrecognized opportunity. If necessary, they use placeholders for yet-to-be-developed project elements.
The more expense-minded among us might resist allocating resources to these activities. Ask them this: What fraction of past projects was completed without flanking maneuvers? Top Next Issue
For an overview of tactics, see "65 Operational Firepower: the Broader Stroke" by Colonel Lamar Tooke, US Army, Retired. Combined Arms Center: Military Review, July-August 2001.
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management
- Some Causes of Scope Creep
- When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.
- Films Not About Project Teams: Part I
- Here's part one of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- Teamwork Myths: Formation
- Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- Durable Agreements
- People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
See also Project Management for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: