Project Management Articles

The Art of War and Project Management

by Di Ellis

Sun Tzu's The Art of War is known as one of the most respected treatises on military strategy in history. But the Art of War deals with more than just military strategy; it also addresses issues of leadership, management skills, decision making and team building which the modern Project Manager would do well to study.

Let's take a look at what Sun Tzu says are the five essentials for victory:

"Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:

  1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
  2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
  4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
  5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign."

I am sure many Project Managers are chuckling over that last one, but let's just look at these in turn and what they mean for today's Project Manager.

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. And how relevant to managing a project, when many things vie for your attention. One of the most critical skills a Project Manager possesses is the ability to prioritise and focus on what is important. Issues may be brought to your attention by team members which they feel need to be addressed urgently. But as Sun Tzu says, we need to know when to fight and when not to fight – some things need to be put on the back burner as they are just not as critical as other items impacting the project.

He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. What a dream it is to manage a project with a strong project team. It happens rarely, but when it does, it is an experience to savour. More likely, you will have a team with a range of skills, from great to not so great. Rarely, you will get a team with very little relevant experience – and these are the greatest challenge. But what a sweet victory pulling off a project that no-one thought you could!

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. Sun Tzu touches several times throughout his book on the concepts of team building and team spirit. In any endeavour, whether it be in business, military or sports, the team that is cohesive, that has the same goal, and who are all positively striving and doing their best to achieve that goal usually win. Especially on a more challenging project, having a team that is motivated to successfully complete that project, against all odds, is worth more than getting extra budget or staff to bolster your team. A cohesive team, with a strong leader, can achieve things beyond what they could all achieve individually, due to their team spirit.

He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. Effective preparation is the key to a successful project. Whilst we don't have an enemy on a project (well, not usually anyway), the project that is well prepared from the outset is better equipped to weather any storms that come their way during the project (and the storms always come)!

He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign. I must admit I did have a chuckle at this one. There is nothing worse than managing a project with a "hands on" Project Owner or Sponsor who means well, but really just gets in the way. That's not to say they shouldn't be involved – that's absolutely essential, but each to his skills, and the Project Manager is hired for their project management skills.

Sun Tzu goes on to say "He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated". Again, the theme of preparation, but also now introducing the concept of discipline.

Discipline, or lack thereof, in my view is responsible for the majority of project failures. Whether that lack of discipline relate to managing costs or schedule, or managing the scope of the project, or managing the team members effectively. The Project Manager who has the discipline to hold fast to the project scope, budget and timeline whilst effectively managing their team will always deliver a successful project.

Sun Tzu also gives us sage advice on how we, as Project Managers, can fail our teams. "There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:

  1. Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
  2. cowardice, which leads to capture;
  3. a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
  4. a delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame;
  5. over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble"

Again, let's look at these in turn.

Recklessness, which leads to destruction. Recklessness equals poor discipline. All decisions made by a Project Manager should be sound and based on facts and experience. There is no room for recklessness in projects, as there is no room during war.

Cowardice, which leads to capture. I liken this statement to poor decision making. Sometimes a decision has to be made which is unpalatable either to you or to your team or Project Sponsor. But a brave (and effective) Project Manager makes a decision based on what needs to be done, not on what people want to be done.

A hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults. A workplace is not the place for anger or losing control of your emotions. As a leader, we have an extra responsibility to demonstrate to our team what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Losing your temper at work is never acceptable behaviour. If something rouses you to anger, count to ten under your breath, and then deal with the matter reasonably.

A delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame. The Project Manager must put the project above personal feelings and emotions. They must always do what is right for the project, regardless of how that might make them feel or look to others.

Over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble. Now Sun Tzu is not saying here not to have respect and empathy for your team. However, he is saying that as a leader you should not be so close to your team that it clouds your judgement. If you have ever managed a project where you had a good friend working on it, you will understand how uncomfortable this can become. Not only can you seem to favour this person in the eyes of others, but it can be very difficult to counsel good friends for poor performance without affecting the relationship outside of work. By all means be friends with your team, but keep the friendship professional, and never let it stand in the way of making the right decision.

This final point leads me to authority and respect for you as Project Manager. Without your team's respect, you have no real authority over them (except in name). As Sun Tzu says "When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization". This is true in projects as it is in the military.

The Art of War has much to teach us as Project Managers. Sun Tzu has a great deal more to say about managing staff and effective team building which I will cover in a later article. Suffice to say, the basics of leadership and management haven't changed much over the millenia!

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About the Author

Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management. To learn more about The Art of War, or to purchase a copy, click here.

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