Management 3.0 – Five 19th century lessons for the 21st century world

Helmuth von Moltke was a noted German military strategist of the 19th century and is perhaps most famous for his nostrum that “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. He meant, of course, that as the battle or campaign unfolds new information comes to light which requires adjustment of the plan to keep it on course to deliver the objective. The same applies in the world of project/programme management, systems delivery and service delivery. Strip away the martial context and language and the core point looks remarkably familiar: overly detailed plans made in advance can’t take into account changes in needs, in capabilities, even in the availability of skills and technologies. Attempting to deliver a complex system without any kind of planning at all is unlikely to succeed except by good luck. Plans which are constantly reviewed, refined and tested are much better able to keep real control of requirements and delivery against them. The planning process becomes one of continuous evaluation and improvement – but always with the overall aim in mind. Another well-known maxim suggests that “When showing objectives on a map the General uses a broad sweep of the arm, the battalion commander a wave of the hand, the company commander a finger, the platoon commander the point of a pencil”. This is taught to help reinforce the need for appropriate planning at each level (or area) of responsibility. Plans are conceived at a strategic level and become more restricted in scope, but more detailed and short-term, the nearer one gets to actual delivery. So, what can we learn? 1. Plan, plan and plan again. There’s a reason why programme offices are sometimes called “war rooms” – it’s because they do the same thing! The PMO is the nerve centre of the delivery of the plan, where all the information is tracked and acted upon, and where the “big picture” comes together allowing the leadership team to see how well the programme is working overall, and what areas need attention. 2. Delegate tasks, not detail. The PMO team can’t be experts in everything – indeed, to be able to understand everything they’re very often generalists. Make your delivery teams responsible for detailed planning and estimating – after all, they’re the ones who have to deliver to it. 3. Embrace change! Your PMO – your war room – constantly receives new information. Act on it, updating your tactical plans where necessary. Be aware that your strategies may have to change as well, responding to changes in the organisation (changes in business offerings, mergers, acquisitions, takeovers – there are lots of things which can affect strategy). 4. Don’t try to address today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions: The Maginot line was the greatest system of permanent fortification built since the Great Wall of China – but a 1918 solution didn’t solve a 1940 problem. 5. Communicate, communicate, communicate: the more you know about what’s happening – really happening – to your project or programme the better equipped you will be to recognise those situations which require corrective action or opportunities to improve the scope, time, cost or quality of your deliveries.

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