Published here September 2003.


Musings Index

Project Lessons Learned?

I wrote the following article back in the euphoric days of 1991. It received great approbation at the time but today, twelve years later and in the light of current world affairs, it seems pertinent to ask: Was the project really such a success? And what lessons have we really learned from it? You be the judge. The original article is reproduced unchanged.

Project Desert Storm (1991)

Projects come in all sizes and shapes, so they tell us. Whether differentiated by duration, complexity or area of application makes no difference. A project is a project. So a (military) project (like Desert Storm) lasting just 100 hours should be nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, that covered only the duration of the execution (battle) and completion (victory) phases. The prior phases and stages of concept, planning, design, and procurement of a complex set of commitments by a large, diverse group of culturally different participants (the United Nations), plus preparation for execution (the prior air campaign) which preceded the project accomplishment phases, added considerably to the real overall project duration.

Nevertheless, the project was a managerial triumph of successful project management (resounding military victory), even though one of the potential deliverables (the opposing Commander-in-Chief) was not included. The project had some unique features. The location (miles of empty desert) was hardly one of the choicest. Project success would rely heavily on teamwork (joint military command), a decisive logistical achievement (assembling, supplying and transporting over unheard-of-distances the most fearsome strike force in history) and innovation (military surprise). The project manager (General Schwarzkopf) did well to give recognition to his logistics manager (General Pagonis) for a job well done (battlefield promotion).

The project was full of risk, and was opposed by a large number of stakeholders (both at home and overseas). Once committed, success depended on utterly logical and overwhelmingly powerful and determined courses of action.

For example, Project Desert Storm was superbly equipped. Firstly, its technology was unsurpassed (world-beating) and state-of-the-art (hi-tech), the product of intensive and highly successful R&D. Secondly, the human resources (troops) working with the equipment and materials (weaponry and firepower) were rigorously trained to the highest standards -- that showed not only in their effectiveness but also in their morale. Thirdly, an able team of leaders, highly trained, experienced, qualified and selected, had only reached the top (through military promotion) after much education and training both technical and general.

Another equally important aspect was the organizational structure (army command) within which the team operated. The project manager had full delegated power to run the operation his way. His instructions from above (the President's office) were absolutely clear, and his immediate sponsors (like General Powell) gave their total support. Authority and responsibility were passed down the organization structure in the same way. Once allotted their role by the project manager, work package managers (field commanders) made their own plans and executed them decisively.

It is true that the project team was not very keen when the project manager first proposed his outlandish and risky strategy (a mighty encircling sweep behind the Republican Guard) to save manhours (lives), time and, ultimately, cost (subsequent prolonged war-effort). His team (tactical commanders) gave the classical response "It can't be done" but that only made the project manager the more determined. After all, had he not found a very tempting market niche ignored by others? (Iraq's generals no doubt also thought that no army could drive their tanks over all that desert and that far without breaking down and going to ruin. They could never make it" they said.

That's what made the project so exciting. The project manager performed a crucial role of any project leader -- he converted a tremendous risk into a tremendous opportunity by insisting that his team had to achieve the impossible. However, the team members only agreed to the course of action after the project manager had ordered his logistics manager (Paginos) to pledge in writing that everything would be in place by the scheduled deadline (February 21, 1991). But that too is an elementary lesson of project management -- give people the tools if you want them to do the job.

There's even more to it than that, of course. Project Desert Storm had an enormous supply of two vital elements: quality information and planning. They are necessary in that order because nothing can be effectively planned without solid information. But the planning and information experts were not an isolated function to satisfy some latest management theory, whether in the design office (Washington) or in the field (war zone). They were an integral part of the project process (war effort). Line and staff relations were not an issue, the focus was on getting the job done (winning).

One advantage the project did enjoy, and that was it was not constrained by budget. Yet the very acts of determination, precision and quality organization (to say nothing of superb timing and decision making by the Chief-Executive in the White House for launching the project) the project has proved to be highly cost-effective, compared to most similar ventures. It may even be a significant revenue generator when indirects are taken into account. All of this in a most unappetizing market (the middle east), where competition at the outset appeared to be overwhelming (the fourth largest army in the world). Indeed, this project represents a powerful argument in support of establishing highly selective strategic alliances in order to achieve project goals.

Surely this must be one of the best object lessons for any project manager today?


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