Perhaps the greatest combat cheat sheet in the history of military endeavours, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” not only got him the title of the greatest military mind of all time, but his treatise has won widespread acclaim for the pearls of wisdom it contains. “What does “The Art of War” have to do with project management?” you may well ask, and my reply would be; “What doesn’t “The Art of War” have to do with project management!” Sun Tzu’s writings primarily focus on leadership as does effective project management and we can learn much from his teachings.
Massive armies have, throughout history, been beaten by a few plucky adversaries with nothing more than a great strategy and a dollop of moxie and this applies to project management too. You can have a huge team of capable professionals fail dismally under poor project management or a few underfunded employees pull of dazzling feats under an inspirational leader. Being a good project manager requires excellent leadership and perhaps a copy of “The Art of War” too!
Sun Tzu has five essentials for victory that underpin his theories. Let’s have a look at each of these and how they relate to project management.
1. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
Prioritizing your time and energy is essential to successful project management. The effective project manager is constantly evaluating problems and tasks and focusing on those that are most urgent first. While multi-tasking seems like a good idea, it really depends on what you’re doing. Make sure that you do each task properly or you will have to waste time down the line redoing it.
Your team members will come to you with issues and tasks that they think should be at the top of your list. Here is when you need to decide when to fight and when not to fight. Evaluate the task or problem and then assign it a position on your list of priorities. And remember to delegate—project management means not having to do everything yourself!
2. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
Your project management team will consist of players with different skill sets and abilities. Take the time to get to know them at the start of the game so that you assign projects and tasks to the right people. Don’t expect blood from a stone; getting people to work within their abilities will help you to achieve success.
3. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
Effective project management means being able to motivate your team and create common goals. A cohesive team can achieve far more than the sum of its individual members. Do not discount the negative consequences of dissent among the ranks. If team members are not getting along, don’t think you’re too busy to deal with disputes. Instead, help to mediate a truce so that all your team members are working well together.
The two things team members need most is a sense of belonging and recognition of their worth. Take time out to have a drink together after work or encourage team-building exercises.
4. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
Project management isn’t something you make up as you go along. Be prepared by getting to know your team before you begin, by listening to their suggestions on how to proceed, by planning every step of the project and by making contingency plans for every possible eventuality.
5. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.
While this is the ideal situation for project management to succeed, some managers and owners may like to intercede or micromanage. It’s important that you establish a chain of command and firm tasks and boundaries before your project begins. Outlining these from the outset will help to prevent interference in the first place. Good project management also requires the leader to put the project above egos or emotions. When owners or managers are micromanaging or interfering, it is imperative that you re-establish boundaries. Interference implies a lack of trust in your team member’s abilities to do their task. If you are interfering, then you need to recognize that and back off. If the team member is not capable of doing the task you set out for them, then reassign them to something more suited to their skills.
With great project management comes great responsibility. Start by getting to know your team members so that you can gauge their skill levels and areas of expertise. This will help you to give the right job to the right people. Plan, plan, plan for every possible outcome with the help and input of your team. Lead; make decisions and take action at every turn, do not wait for others to make the first move. Be flexible and listen to the recommendations of your team as the project progresses so that you will always be tweaking your plans to fit new situations as they arise.