I have spent the last twelve years of my military career dealing with the planning and conducting of complex military operations. Serving in different roles as Division Head, Commander, Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff in national as well as NATO organizations, I have led planning teams, directed staffs, educated, and evaluated headquarters staffs, units and individuals involved in real world operations and exercises, applying the “bible” of the NATO Operational Planning Process.
This was much more than just a job. It was (and it still is) a real passion for understanding and managing complex operational environments through a methodology that ensure a coordinated and coherent response to a crisis by all relevant actors whether we deal with war or other kinds of military interventions.
As I was approaching my retirement, a working relationship with some brilliant project managers, made me realize how much the military approach to decision-making overlaps with project management ethics and practice. Although the military profession is often separated from civilian or commercial ones due to their unique roles and contexts for action, military operations and projects are alike because they both interpret reality to produce scaled and resourced outputs to reach their respective operational objectives and ensure success.
The similarities between the two realms, are the result of an intellectual contamination between the military professionals and those in the war-production industry that occurred after World War II. Ideas of strategy as well as large-scale planning would migrate from the military over the industry as thousands exited military service after 1945, with an expansion of military ideas surging in the 1950s in commercial settings for the first time. The exodus of wartime draftees back into civilian enterprise would unavoidably inject military models, methods, and decision-making directly into commercial industry in the 1940s-1960s. The exchange of people, ideas, and behaviour patterns would loop back and forth between commerce and war as one influenced the goals and desires of the other, and I believe this two-ways flow is still extant.
In the business model, project management deals with small or large, short- or long-term goals: building a product, providing a service, or achieving a particular result. It’s project management that plans and executes a marketing campaign, a business plan, or the building of industrial infrastructures and highways. In the military model there are also myriad of approaches to management and planning, but the most demanding intellectual enterprise remains the planning and executing of military operations. The place where the military and non-military ways to do business overlap.
As a matter of fact, project management and military decision-making processes share similar lifecycles and essential components. Let’s look at the project lifecycle diagram below, as described by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK©), the international main guideline for managing projects (1).
The process outlined by PMBOK© consists of five phases, beginning with initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and controlling, and finally closing the project.
The military decision-making cycle (see diagram below) is based on four main phases considering that we don’t formally include a closure stage(2).
If you can look beyond the differences in terminology, you’ll see that they just conceptually overlap.
In the PMI model, this is receiving a task, defining the project on a broad level, the project goals and scope, assigning responsibility or a project manager, and estimating the requirements. In the military model (Observation-Orientation), this is receiving a mission from the higher command, assessing the mission tasks, developing a comprehensive understanding of the operational environment, defining the mission on a broad level. The initiation phase is when initial planning begins, and the Joint Operational Planning Group (JOPG), the equivalent of the project group, is assembled.
This stage lays out the project’s roadmap and plan while in the military world the Operational Design and the Operational Plan are developed. In this phase, the primary tasks are identifying technical requirements, developing a detailed project schedule, creating a communication plan, and setting up goals/deliverables. Likewise, in the military model we identify the actions, effects and decisive conditions leading to the achievement of operational objectives.
This is the phase in which the real work begins, executing is the longest of all the lifecycle phases and where the bulk of the effort is placed. Project managers/ JOPG leaders establish efficient workflows and carefully monitor the progress of project/planning teams and maintain effective collaboration between project/operation stakeholders. To make sure that everyone plays the same music, and the operation runs smoothly without any issues, the military model inserts a Refine/Direct phase in which a Joint Synchronization Process takes place before executing the plan. This happens especially when operations are complex due to the number of actors involved (military and non-military) to make sure that plans, actions, effects are delivered in a synchronized matter across the whole spectrum of the operational design.
Monitoring and controlling
In both models, the third and fourth phases are not sequential in nature. The project monitoring and controlling phase (assessment in the military model) runs simultaneously with project/mission execution, thereby ensuring that project deliverables and operational objectives are met. This concept is important enough to deserve a dedicated box in the process. As project managers or chiefs of staff/commanders, we have to make sure that no one deviates from the original plan by establishing Critical Success Factors (CSF), Key Performance Indicators (KPI), and similar military measures of performance. Through this feedback loop, progress and quality of execution is monitored, controlled, and evaluated. Reports are made and projects/plans adjusted accordingly.
The project closure stage indicates the end of the project after the final delivery. In the PMI’s working environment this includes a review of the entire project, a completion of a detailed report that covers every aspect of the endeavour, and the storage of all relevant data and information in a secure place that can be accessed by project managers of that organization. Most teams hold a reflection meeting after the completion of the project to analyse their successes and shortfalls. As already mentioned, the military model doesn’t insert a formal step in the decision-making cycle, but the entire staff in any Headquarters is involved in the same kind of reviews and critical analyses to ensure continuous improvement within the organization.
Project management is essentially the same across industries, as military planning is the same across services and Headquarters. In both cases it’s a team effort that requires active and continuing collaboration and dialogue between the team members and their leaders. It’s about the privilege of working with professionals from different gender, backgrounds, nationalities, appreciating their ideas and values. It’s about leading, engaging and motivating people to work cohesively and to achieve a shared goal. It’s about understanding and managing complexity burning the midnight oil with your team and partners to turn ideas into action. It’s about listening, giving, and receiving and learning. Upon my retirement I still feel comfortable and “at home” when dealing with people and processes, and that’s the source of my passion for project management.