Lessons learned and experience, your great allies for success

Lessons learned and experience, your great allies for success

Interview of David Giner.

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Sometimes we underestimate the importance of the lessons learned and we are not specific about what we can help improve and grow as project managers.

On this occasion we have interviewed Jerry Manas, author of the book Napoleon on Project Management.

In this case, the lessons learned come from an exact study on one of the most influential historical figures, and that today we can apply our projects.


David Giner: There are different historical figures from whom we can learn how to lead, manage a project. Why did you choose Napoleon? Was he an obvious choice for you right from the start or did you select him after having considered other possible candidates?

Jerry Manas: My interest in Napoleon happened almost by accident. It began when I was reading the book Patton on Leadership, by Alan Axelrod, and I saw a number of surpringly astute quotes from Napoleon, a heavy influence for Patton, that didn’t seem to fit with the classic American/British view of him. As a matter of pure coincidence, I was reading a marketing book a few weeks later and came upon more quotes from Napoleon, many of sound principle.

I began doing research and found that not only did he achieve incredible feats on the battlefield, but also thrived as an administrator in a time of great upheaval. Surely, there were lessons in this for project managers, and an equal number of lessons from his downfall.

What made my job of extracting lessons easier was that there has been more written by and about Napoleon than any leader in history, with documented principles, diaries, artifacts, and more.

DG: PMI advocates the importance of collecting lessons learned from projects to grow and improve. Your book is a clear example of a comprehensive compilation of lessons learned. Why do you think that Project Managers struggle to collect lessons learned? And, most importantly, why do they find it difficult to apply them in practice?

JM: I think there’s a traditional assumption that lessons learned are to be gathered at the end of a project. Yet, I rarely hear about a process to evaluate previous lessons learned when planning a project.

So, without this crucial evaluation up front, what you end up with is what I heard one colleague refer to as “lessons recorded” — not learned.

I often suggest that lessons be recorded (and prior lessons reviewed) at each stage gate of a project. This way, everything is fresh in the mind and corrective action can be taken.

I think the same of risk management and customer satisfaction assessments.

All of these items should be assessed at each stage of a project. Ongoing, I think a good practice for project managers is to read at least one book a year, and ideally more, on lessons and principles for project success. Continuous learning is discussed all too infrequently as a critical success factor.

DG: In the book, you talk about the skills to succeed. I would particularly like to highlight one of them, «Develop a good memory». How exactly can having a good memory help us succeed in project management?

JM: Napoleon himself credited a good memory as a key contributor to his success. In project management, this can apply to remembering people’s names and particular talents; stakeholders’ likes and dislikes; small business details that can make or break a project; communication details, and more.

The ability to organize these memories and compartmentalize our thinking is also important, and there are a number of mental exercises and especially technological tools we have today to assist with that.

Of course, Napoleon didn’t have notebook software or cell phones, whereas we can store all sorts of facts in an online notebook, and search by any phrase or keyword to bring it up as needed.

The key is to have the facts when we need them so we can react quickly and appropriately.

DG: Another winning principle you talk about is simplicity. Sometimes, we complicate things unnecessarily. / Sometimes, we overcomplicate things. Why do you think it happens?

JM: I think people tend to get caught up in analysis paralysis, or to the other extreme, some have no patience for detail and tend to oversimplify things. Simplicity is key in planning, communication, and product design and configuration.

Albert Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I think this speaks to the problem very well. Einstein also spoke of our irrational tendency toward “a confusion of goals and perfection of means.”

If we remember to go back to the goals we’re trying to achieve, we can get back to basics. I see this a lot in software implementation. Everyone is so busy with the technical details and overcomplicating the configuration and implementation, they forget about stopping to ask why they’re implementing it in the first place.

Often that can reveal unnecessary elements that don’t really support the ultimate goal. Peter Senge’s “Five Why’s” helps with this as well (asking “why” five time until you get to the root of the problem). 

Regarding communication and design, I often reference a quote from artist Hans Hoffman, “Simplicity is the art of removing the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

DG: Sticking to the winning principles is not easy. Throughout the book, you talk about how one of the reasons for Napoleon’s failure is that he does not maintain that commitment. What measures can we take to detect any warning signs that we are not following through with the principles identified at the beginning?

JM: Napoleon himself said his greatest failure came from his interference in Spanish affairs, rightfully claiming that all his other more well-known failures came from this source.

He admitted he should have brought in a neutral party as an arbitrator. Instead, his misguided actions resulted in a nine year guerrilla war that tied up his troops and paved the way for Russia and England to invade a weakened France.

I think this often happens in business as well, where we react to an emergent need or issue and fail to assess the full implications of choosing or altering a course.

Certainly, risk management is the leading project management tool that can help deal with this and avoid potential problems, yet it’s often the most overlooked project management function. And in organizations that do employ risk management, they typically fail to use it to assess the human risks, only looking at the risks to the schedule, cost, or quality.

I think instituting a simple, qualitative risk management policy, at the least, that is embedded into all project stage gates and takes a holistic, humanistic view of risks, would go a long way toward staying on principle.

DG: Thank you for your time. Before we say goodbye, would you like to add anything else about your book?

JM: It has been a pleasure. As for the book, it is available in multiple languages wherever books are sold. After I had written the Napoleon book, I then researched the Roman Empire, specifically which leaders succeeded, which ones failed, and why, and what their project methods were. It was interesting seeing the patterns on a macro level.

I ended up writing a series of articles on Project Lessons from the Roman Empire on what is now ProjectManagement.com. These were later assembled by a publisher into a book of the same name, which I updated as well. Later I wrote Managing the Gray Areas, from RMC Publications, that explores the common dilemmas all leaders face, and explores answers from science, philospophy, and the arts, as well as best practice business case examples.

This gets into the project management area of ethics and decision-making, for those who are intrested. My most recent book is The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook (McGraw-Hill), which focuses on making sure your people and work are aligned, a topic Napoleon would no doubt have enjoyed.

Jerry Manas is an internationally bestselling author, speaker, and consultant. His latest book is The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook (McGraw-Hill), which Judith E. Glaser, noted author of Conversational Intelligence, touted as “the first book dedicated to what is essentially the drivetrain of organizations—the effective use of its people toward its most important activities.”

Jerry is frequently cited by leading voices in the world of business, including legendary management guru Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), who often references Jerry’s best selling work, Napoleon on Project Management, for its insights on simplicity and character.

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