3 Keys to Project Management: Lessons From the 21st Century Battlefield

Most any professional can attest to the fact that bringing a project to fruition can be a battle. Managing it well, a victory.

Project management is a vital competency across industries; as the Project Management Institute defines project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result,”[i] that covers a fairly wide swath of organizations. For any business delivering a project, service or result, a keen understanding of project management principles can be the crux of success or failure not just for a specific project, but for a whole team or business; stakes are high.

The same is true in the military, where the stakes can literally be a matter of life and death.

While there are some clear differences in terminology and subtle differences in methodology, there are a number of similarities between the way the business world and the military approach the planning, execution and monitoring of projects. Military commanders use the same tools and face similar obstacles as those encountered by project managers. They, too, owe success or failure to the “iron triangle” of project management: scope, budget and time.

This might not come as a huge surprise, given that some modern-day project management techniques were developed first for military settings — for instance, the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) was developed by the U.S. Navy, Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin.

Josh Sims, a Darden Executive MBA program participant in the Class of 2018, observed as much in his experiences as an Army officer, planner and commander on the 21st century battlefield.

His story exemplifies the importance of three key themes to project management and leadership he identified as essential:

  • Clearly define scope — the set of a project’s deliverables. Ill-defined goals and “mushy” tasks will lead to failure every time.
  • Place a priority on managing stakeholders, both internal and external to your organization. Take into consideration all groups that will be affected by the project.
  • Embrace agility. Leadership is about people, not sticking to a previously determined process that may not work.

Josh Sims: Afghanistan 2007–08

For roughly the first third of my career in the Army, I was a conventional infantry officer. I was trained to fight conventional battles and plan and execute conventional operations. During my first combat deployment, I was placed in command of an extremely remote outpost in southern Afghanistan. My team and I were given, in no particular order, the following tasks:

  • Stabilize the local area.
  • Legitimize the local government.
  • Defeat anti-government insurgents in the area.

None of these tasks, incidentally, are considered conventional warfare. We had a little under a year to produce some sort of progress toward these goals. As a young officer in my very early 20s, I thought that the Army, and my recent undergraduate education at the University of Virginia, had given me all the tools I needed to accomplish any task. My mission — my project — was to accomplish these tasks on time, to standard, using the personnel, weapons and equipment I had been given. I sat down with my team and we created a plan, in detail, of how we thought we would accomplish these tasks.

Problems, however, became apparent almost immediately. In every rural village and community, the local people seemed to vanish right before we arrived. Everywhere we went, someone, although we were never sure exactly who, shot at us or planted bombs for our vehicles. The local government officials were friendly, but they seemed unpopular, and murmurs of corruption were rampant. Nothing at all seemed stable about the local area. This went on for several months with no real change in the situation. Not one portion of our plan seemed to be having any effect. We were certainly expending plenty of resources in terms of fuel, food, ammunition, time and — worst of all — casualties. Yet we had very little measurable progress to show.

In project management parlance, we were behind schedule and over budget. Time was running out.

What Are We Supposed to Be Doing?

Halfway through the deployment, I sat with the senior leaders on my team to discuss our progress. It was a colorful and frank discussion, as infantry are apt to have. One common question kept reoccurring: “What are we supposed to be doing?” The scope of our task was extremely ill-defined and we had no useful tools inside our conventional toolkit.

We had never had a meaningful discussion with the local government or the local population much beyond, “Trust us, we’re here to help.” We were completely ignoring key stakeholders. We were also not listening to our customers — the local population, in this case. Finally, we were using conventional planning techniques and tactics to try to solve an unconventional problem. We would have to think less about physical terrain and direct combat operations and more about how to engage with the human networks around us.

With these insights, we revamped our strategy.

Managing the Project

Scope: First, we narrowed our scope. As a group we agreed on clearer, measurable and useful definitions of stabilize, defeat and legitimize.

Stakeholder management: Secondly, we began to map out our stakeholders. These included our parent command, local tribes, ethnic and religious powerbrokers, and members of the formal local government. We mapped, in as much detail as possible, the motives, priorities and desires of each of these groups.

Agility: Finally, we agreed that we would adapt our tactics. We would no longer plan elaborate operations or raids. Every time we did this, it just alienated us from the local population. Instead, we would break down into smaller teams and spread out, spending more time simply moving throughout the area and interacting with the population.

These fixes seemed to work. Our conversations and interactions with the local stakeholders become more frequent and meaningful. We saw greater participation with the local government. Perhaps most importantly, we saw fewer attacks, less violence and fewer casualties. We were able to make measurable progress for the rest of the year.

Project management and military operations are remarkably similar in almost every practical aspect. The motivations are, of course, very different, but the lessons remain the same. In the last 15 years of conflict, the military has made efforts to move from large, rigid structures and specialized silos to more fluid people- and customer-oriented approaches. Entrenched institutions have been transformed into a highly adaptive learning organizations out of necessity. The importance of clearly defined scope, stakeholder management and agility have been continually reinforced through both painful failure and brilliant successes.

Josh Sims (EMBA Class of 2018) prepared this piece under the supervision of Darden Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne.


[i] A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) — Fifth Edition. Project Management Institute Inc. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. 2013.

About the Faculty

Yael Grushka-Cockayne

Grushka-Cockayne’s research and teaching activities focus on decision analysis, forecasting, project management and behavioral decision-making.

As an expert in the area of project management, she has served as a consultant to international firms in the aerospace and transportation industries. She is the secretary/treasurer of INFORMS Decision Analysis Society, a U.Va. Excellence... Learn More

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