Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Off the map

Sir John Keegan is not the man I would ordinarily look to for insights about project management.

Sir John is an esteemed military historian--indeed, acclaimed by many as the best military historian of the modern age--whose 20+ histories focus on the interrelated factors of popular culture, political struggle, strategic geography, battle terrain, military culture, influencing technology, tactical maneuver, and strategic vision.

In his most recent book, "The American Civil War: a military history", he dedicates a chapter to 'generalship'.

In that chapter, about USA Major General Joseph Hooker*, Keegan reports: "... Hooker lacked the ability to make 'war on the map'", meaning Hooker "... functioned well only as long as his troops were under his eye."

And, most telling, this statement: "Once they moved beyond his field of vision, he lost the power to visualize their whereabouts".

That statement really struck a cord. I've seen this too many times in the project space: team leaders, promoted to a more strategic position, unable to manage the project "on the plan", meaning they, like general Joe, can not effectively visualize what is going on when they get beyond the 'daily stand-up' and the opportunity to manage by walking about.

My observation is that these managers can't scale their management style and leadership attributes to fit the larger scope.  They are befuddled by teams that are physically distributed, projects have resources in many locations, other companies may be on the project team, and the project is accosted not only by risks afar but by the forces of politics and self-interest.

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Photo: US Library of Congress

*Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hooker was a West Point graduate, and so presumably was educated in the military sciences.  However, to fight the Civil War, armies on both sides of the conflict raised a total of over 1000 general officers in the course of four years, starting from just a handful in the antebellum US Army of the day. Thus, most Civil War generals were accidents of circumstances, nearly none of which had any formal education in military science, the management and maneuver of large units, nor the elements of leadership. 

In the US Army, all but two were either brigadiers or major generals.  Until late in 1864, three years after the war began, the US had only one lieutenant general and he was desk bound in Washington as Chief of Staff.  Thereafter to the end of the war, only there were only two, one of which was Supreme Commander in the field, LTG Grant.  Today, there are still about 1000 flag officers in the U.S. military, though about 300 are 3 and 4 star rank.

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