Edmund Burke famously stated in the 18th century, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” History has many lessons to teach us in relation to project management and support found for any number of these lessons can be included in a “top 3 lessons from history that every project manager should know” list. However, in the interest of brevity, the following three were selected to seed the discussion on what history has taught vis-à-vis project management.
Lesson 1: Clear and Agreed to Objectives/Requirements
The lack of clear and agreed to objectives remains a common problem in the 21st century with a long history. The Palace of Versailles project in the 17th century provides a cautionary tale for this lesson as King Louis XIV continually added new requirements to the project significantly increasing the cost as well as demanding an impossible schedule which also inflated the project budget and in all likelihood was the most expensive project in history. The resulting debts, along with costly wars during the 18th century, were principal causes that ignited the French Revolution in 1789.
Lesson 2: Communication
The Gothic cathedral projects during the Central Middle Ages (1050 – 1300 AD) present a good example of communications management in long scale projects. There were two aspects to this with the first to get buy-in for the project as the town and inhabitants of the church’s location had to support the endeavor as the structure was a major imposition to the town and its inhabitants. The second factor was the need for continuous communication through the project’s potentially century-long life cycle as new generations needed introduction and grooming to take over the work from the prior generation. Few 21st-century projects take a hundred years to complete; however, the Gothic cathedral efforts demonstrate the need for efficient and effective communication in project work.
Lesson 3: Politics, Politics and More Politics
Politics exists on every project both good and bad. An example of politics leading to, at least at the time, the illogical choice was the siting of the fledgling United States’ capital. In 1790, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and his bitter political rivals, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Speaker of the House James Madison came to an agreement that the federal government would pay each state’s remaining Revolutionary War debts in exchange for establishing the new national capital in the southern United States. Previously the capital was located in the north, first at New York City and then Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. President George Washington agreed to this compromise which eventually led to locating the new nation’s seat of government in swampland just north and west of President George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. While politically expedient this site was uninhabitable for part of the year due to summer heat and the threat of malaria as well as not ideal for building structures; however, politics trumped logic in this case.
An example of politics producing positive results worked in the building of the first nuclear submarine in the 1950s. Admiral Hiram Rickover knew that even one mistake on such a revolutionary project would destroy any support for the venture so he instituted strict quality control which ensured that no errors occurred. The measures worked, the vessel was completed and submarine, as well as nuclear war, was irrevocably changed.
These examples, both good and bad, provide a perspective that many of the challenges project managers face today do not radically different from those faced by our predecessors. These illustrations should add weight to Mr. Burke’s comment and should encourage every project manager to take the lessons learned process seriously. It’s important to study lessons learned reports from prior projects similar to initiatives that a project manager may undertake in the future. By studying past reports, a project manager can devise a strategy to avoid past mistakes and take advantage of opportunities missed. Sadly this strategy remains a best practice all too often neglected, letting history repeat itself.
Paul Bruno, PgMP, PMP is the marketing manager and an author for the Lessons From History series which combines history and project management and he has 25 years’ experience in Information Technology. He holds Master’s Degrees in Business Administration and History, and Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Software and Management. He is working on his first book, Lessons From History: The First Jeep: Lessons in Entrepreneurship and Innovation for the Lessons From History Series.
Image credit, mararie, Flickr