On Strategy, Project Management, and War

How does strategy fit with project management? Apparently the PMI - and employers - think it fits, since strategy is acknowledged (and PDU training required) in the new PMI Talent Triangle. Let's explore through the eyes of a famous military strategist.

Why do you need to be familiar with strategy? There are many theoretical and business oriented reasons, and I have explored some in prior posts. See "Focus on Leadership – PDUs and the PMI Talent Triangle" and "PMI Talent Triangle: Earn Technical Project Management PDUs".

However, this time, I want to explore a different viewpoint - strategy from a military perspective as discussed in the treatises of the late Prussian soldier, Carl von Clauswitz, in his treatise "On War".

strategy and project management

Von Clausewitz first defines strategy as something that ties together all disparate actions - projects, initiatives, alliances - into a cohesive, purpose-driven whole. He states:

Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the War; it must therefore give an aim to the whole military action, which must be in accordance with the object of the War; in other words, Strategy forms the plan of the War, and to this end it links together the series of act which are to lead to the final decision, that, is to say, it makes the plans for the separate campaigns and regulates the combats to be fought in each.

Think of all the disparate projects, departments, subsidiaries, etc. in your organization. How are they all tied together around a common and shared goal or purpose?

Von Clausewitz continues his look at strategy - but now from more of an implementation-focused perspective. What happens when, after all of the up front strategic thinking and planning is done, when you actually implement the strategy in the field? Some items cannot be planned in advance, others will need to be adjusted, and in general some things will inevitably go wrong. Von Clausewitz says:

As these are all things which to a great extent can only be determined on conjectures some of which turn out incorrect, while a number of other arrangements pertaining to details cannot be made at all beforehand, it follows, as a matter of course, that Strategy must go with the Army to the field in order to arrange particulars on the spot, and to make the modifications in the general plan, which incessantly become necessary in War. Strategy can therefore never take its hand from the work for a moment."

This is where I think strategy begins to intersect most closely with traditional project management. Project managers need to be aware of the strategy - certainly the reason for doing the project, and how it fits into the overall strategy. Only with that knowledge can the project manager - the "boots on the ground" - make the course corrections, adjustments, and on the spot decisions on the project that are consistent with the over strategy.

Von Clausewitz also cautions about the development and implementation of strategy occurring only at the high levels within the organization:

"...[There was a] former custom of keeping Strategy in the cabinet and not with the Army, a thing only allowable if the cabinet is so near to the Army that it can be taken for the chief head-quarters of the Army."

Von Clausewitz sums it up with one more statement about looking at individual project functions from the perspective of the whole:

"We might say that, just as in commerce the merchant cannot set apart and place in security gains from one single transaction by itself, so in War a single advantage cannot be separated from the result of the whole. Just as the former must always operate with the whole bulk of his means, just so in War, only the sum total will decide on the advantage or disadvantage of each item."

The bottom line: it pays to appreciate strategy, and to take the perspective of the whole in managing your projects! How else can you really have the perspective to articulate to upper management if the project is on track toward its goals? This is why the PMI Talent Triangle includes a leg for Strategy and Business Management, and why the PMI's new PDU requirements mandate that PMPs must take a minimum of 8 PDUs of training in this area during a renewal cycle.

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