Project Management And The Art Of War

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is known as one of the most respected treatises on military strategy in history. The manuscript was written around 475 -221 B.C.E. But the Art of War deals with more than just military strategy; it also addresses issues of leadership, management skills, decision making and team building, which the modern Project Manager would do well to study. In this article I will present the teachings of this great military tactician and offer my interpretations as they pertain to the realm of project management.

  • Sun Tzu:“The power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitutes the test of a great general.”

Sun Tzu talks about the role of the General (Project Manager) preparing for battle (Project). He talks about the responsibilities of the General towards the Sovereign (Business Leader; Organization) while taking the prevailing environmental factors (team, budget, organizational constraints) into consideration.

  •  Sun Tzu: Military action is important to the nation — it is the ground of life and death. 

Project success is critical to the success of the organization. Therefore it is imperative that the PM plans every detail as thoroughly as possible.

  • Sun Tzu: Therefore appraise it in terms of five fundamental factors – The Way; The Weather; The Terrain; The Leadership; and  The Discipline

The success of the project is determined by the prevailing organizational culture (Way); the budgetary support for the project (Weather); the management support to the project (Terrain); the abilities of PM(Leadership) and the belief of the team in the project and the level of commitment to the success of the project (Discipline).

  • Sun Tzu:“Treat your soldiers as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”Set featured image

Respect the opinions of your team. As a PM your goal is to ‘manage’ the project and not ‘micro manage’ it. Allow open channels of communications within the project team and create a collaborative environment.

  • Sun Tzu: “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”

Sun Tzu points out ways that the PM can really mess up. Not knowing yourself is akin to having a poor vision and lack of human resource management. It may leave you susceptible to use of insufficient resources and methods. In this case the enemy implies not knowing all the negative factors that can have a detrimental effect on the success of the project.

  • Sun Tzu: “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

A PM must be adept at taking difficult decisions at the right time. Delayed decisions are more harmful to the project’s success than incorrect decisions taken on time.

CONCLUSION: Sun Tzu may have been the master of wartime strategies, but his advice still resonates with us today because it can be so readily applied to politics, business, and our personal lives. It is possible that the reader may interpret the sayings differently to the ones presented in this article. What matters however is the ability of the project manager to lead projects like successful generals in the time of war by effectively applying Sun Tzu’s teachings.