Does your organization emphasize the importance of lessons learned? What about best practices? Many organizations pay lip service to learning from the past. Aside from occasional references to past project failures, few project management organizations give much thought to learning about the past.
Today’s featured guest, Paul Bruno, shows that project managers can learn lessons from the past. Paul is a kindred spirit who understands the importance of history to understanding the world and becoming better at our work. In this interview, we cover Paul’s experience, learn about his new book “The First Jeep” and find project management lessons from history.
Click to read the interview below.
Photo of Paul Bruno PMP and
author of “The First Jeep”
1) How did you get into project management? What was your background in terms of education and work experience?
I became an Information Technology manager in 2001 after spending the prior 15 years working in various positions in that field including as a personal computer support specialist, systems programmer, information systems auditor, personal computer support supervisor and an information technology director. The diversity of that experience gave me a solid knowledge base for working as a project manager.
My education supported the move into project management as my MBA in Marketing and Bachelor of Science in Management provided management expertise and my Bachelor of Science in Computer Software supplemented my technology experience.
2) What do you find most interesting in project work?
The most interesting parts of project work for me include the people and the practice of project management. I enjoy working with teams to accomplish the deliverables required. I thoroughly enjoy using a structured process to bring the project deliverables to life, especially the planning process and creating the work breakdown structure. I believe in the adage “plan your work and work your plan” using an organized methodology as I have seen it make the projects I have worked on more efficient, effective and fun to be a part of.
3) Tell me about a project that failed (or nearly failed): what lesson did you learn?
I worked on a project to implement a land development system across multi departments in a local government organization. The project nearly failed due to not having the right individual as the project manager from the start and the overwhelming change this effort represented to the system users engendered a great deal of resistance. The lessons learned were, one, the critical importance of having a skilled project manager at the helm of a major project from the outset and two, not underestimating the opposition to a project, even one that ostensibly will bring positive change, and identifying and dealing with the conflict points early in the project life cycle.
With a budget of $750,000 and a project team of 15, this system implementation project was a major effort. From beginning to end, the project took three years to complete and directly impacted 150 users.
4) In your books and websites, you stress the importance of learning lessons from history. Where did your passion for history come from?
My passion from history manifested itself at an early age, in elementary school, starting in 5th grade when I checked out the Illustrated History of the Civil War 36 weeks in a row. That did not make the librarian happy when she found out as the maximum number of weeks to check out a book was 3. However, this was back in the days of pen and paper so I got away with it!
My love of history grew throughout the remainder of my school days and even though I pursued my undergraduate degree in management I took as many history courses as I could though I did not complete enough to have a minor in the field. I even made my one elective in my MBA program a history course, an independent study using historical war gaming as the foundation, of the eastern front in the Soviet Union circa 1942. My love of history culminated in my earning my Masters in History in 2009 and I have had two articles published in the peer review journal, the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, related to Nevada history.
5) What is one lesson from history that project managers need to learn?
I would choose two key lessons from history for project managers, though there are many more.
The first, the absolute necessity of having the right people to complete an assignment. Throughout history, the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time have caused major calamities. The aged and outdated leaders of Europe blundered their way into a cataclysmic war in 1914 for example.
The second, the need for planning as a lack thereof has again created numerous historical tragedies. For example, Ulysses S. Grant’s impetuous attack at Cold Harbor in 1864 cost the lives of 6,000 men in an hour. John Burgoyne’s failure to adequately take into account the wilderness terrain of upstate New York in 1777 led to his defeat at the Battle of Saratoga, which changed the course of world history.
6) In North America, many people are excited about technology and innovation. How can this future-oriented perspective fit with learning from history?
Technology and innovation are nothing new. Many eras have seen rapid technological process, the Renaissance, the early industrial period from 1790 – 1840, the industrial revolution of the later part of the 19th century, to the “information” age we live in today.
The constant across all those time periods, people. No matter the technological or innovative change there will always remain “the people aspect,” (i.e, those who will readily accept the change, be slow to adopt or resist the change). Certain segments of English society so resisted the change to textile mills in the early 19th century that they bequeathed future generations a term for those who fail to move forward with technology, Luddites. The common link of humanity, understanding the struggles, challenges and triumphs of those who have come before us, remains the most exciting part of history for me, and what makes learning from history relevant for today and the future.
7) Your book “Project Management in History: The First Jeep” is coming out this fall. What is your goal in writing this book?
My goals in writing this book were to tell the incredible true story of how the Jeep was birthed in the confusion and chaos of early World War II, how the prototype was built in the incredible time period of 49 days by a bankrupt car company in a nondescript Western Pennsylvania city, and to pay homage to the individuals who achieved this nothing short of amazing miracle.
Lastly, I saw in this remarkable story many lessons for today’s project managers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders that were applicable to today’s and future projects that by telling this story through the prism of project management, might help the execution of present and forthcoming project as well as help businesses in general become more efficient and effective.
8) In your view, why should project managers understand and apply strategy?
Project managers should understand and apply strategy because every project constitutes an event that will have both a “big picture’ as well as detail. Therefore, the PM must have the skill, especially during the project initiation and planning phases, to see the totality of the undertaking, within the specific project as well as how that project fits into the overall scheme of the organization’s goals and objectives.
Without the ability to see the “forest” the project manager and team will work in the “trees,” first executing project tasks that are not well organized as well as making any deliverables from the project less valuable, since they were not linked directly to the organization’s strategy. While some may find it difficult to “work in the clouds,” being skilled in strategy, in my mind, constitutes a critical skill for a project manager.
9) Many new project managers lack a strategic approach to their projects. How can they adopt that perspective?
The key for a new project manager, or any project manager for that matter, vis-à-vis developing a strategic approach to projects, rests in their desire to want to become proficient in that area. Many project managers come from a technical background (me included!) where skill in attention to detail was critical to their success. Then that individual assumes a project manager’s role and suddenly they have to deal with many issues, both hard and soft skilled, that necessitate a strategic mindset, and in many cases, they really didn’t know that this would happen.
Therefore, they have to make a choice, either develop that capacity or not. If a project manager truly desires to expand their horizons by becoming a strategic thinker there are a plethora of courses and books to help them gain the knowledge, as well as working with, and learning from, talented leaders provides another avenue to develop a strategic mindset.
10) What is the greatest strategic challenge facing project managers?
The greatest strategic challenge facing project managers is the lack of understanding at the C-level of organizations of the value of the profession and that PM’s are essentially leaders / executives working on projects, as opposed to the operations arena of a particular functional area. Companies that realize the strategic value of project management will harness a competitive advantage that will make them stronger in the marketplace.
Therefore, the key strategic challenge remains that leaders and individuals in organizations and professions (human resources, marketing, sales, etc.) realize that structured project management can help them gain a competitive advantage, personally, professionally and as an organization.
11) From your knowledge of projects and history, who is your favorite strategist and what did you learn from them?
My favorite strategist remains George Washington* because he was willing to learn from his mistakes and change as needed. Early on in the American Revolutionary War, he attempted to confront the British head-on which resulted in disaster on Long Island and in New York City in 1776.
The commanding general realized from these disasters, and his victories later that year and in early 1777 at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, that it was more important to keep his army in the field and win the war by having the British public tire of the cost of the conflict, than to defeat the English in open battle, a seismic shift in strategic thinking for that era.
For the remainder of the war, Washington chose his battles carefully, when he had a good opportunity to win, and this culminated in the epic victory at Yorktown in 1781 effectively ending the war. This lesson, ironically, was used by the North Vietnamese against the United States during the Vietnam War, to the same level of effectiveness, as eventually the North conquered the South in 1975.
The ability to “learn from one’s strategic mistakes” and adjust, to me, represents one the greatest strength a strategist and leader can possess.
[ *Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow and agree with Paul’s view of Washington as a strategist.]
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