Napoleon on Project Management : Timeless Lessons in Planning, Execution, and Leadership
Excerpt from Napoleon on Project Management
Chapter 1: The Skills to Succeed
“My business is to succeed, and I’m good at it. I create my Iliad by my actions, create it day by day.”Napoleon Bonaparte perhaps achieved more objectives with amazing success than anyone else in history. He undertook an effort to bring order to France in a time of post-revolutionary chaos. He led numerous battles and continuously emerged victorious, often against larger armies. He rose from relative obscurity to be the ruler of all Western Europe in but a few years, using an army that had never before and never since achieved such greatness. He implemented efforts to build alliances, eventually increasing his army to an unprecedented 600,000 strong. He created a civil code that is still in use today (and which was the inspiration for most other civil codes today).
Most importantly, he, and many others, documented how he did it.
It is through these countless documents and memoirs that we can get a sense of what made Napoleon so successful. As a result, we can gain a good understanding of the methods that brought him such success and the skills that made him rise above the pack. With that, let’s begin by examining the skills that Napoleon viewed as essential for any leader—particularly as it applies to project management.
NAPOLEON’S TIMELESS TOOLS FOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT
Before we begin, let’s remember that, to benefit from project management lessons, one does not have to have a formal title of “project manager.” On the contrary, anybody who must lead an endeavor, whether as a CEO, a sports coach, a film director, or any other type of leader, can benefit from these universal lessons. So, when we refer to project managers, we are referring to all leaders who choose to manage their efforts as “projects.” And, according to today’s experts, ranging from Tom Peters to the Gartner Group, management-by-projects is the surest path to achieving organizational (and yes, even personal) goals. Fortunately, the lessons from Napoleon’s rise and fall can show us how to be successful with this approach, both in our organizations and personal lives.
As our journey progresses, we’ll explore how Napoleon rose to power, how he grew his empire as much through shrewd diplomacy as through victories in battle, and how he lost it all with several costly mistakes—mistakes that many of us make in our daily working lives. We will examine the Six Winning Principles that guided Napoleon to repeated success, and we’ll look at case studies detailing where he went wrong. But first, we’ll begin with the basics, as Napoleon walks us through his philosophies on leadership. In this way, we’ll build a solid foundation before embarking on our journey. What follows are excerpts from Napoleon’s memoirs, as he contemplated the abilities and values that he felt made him successful: having developed solid skills, such as a good memory and knowledge of mathematics; upholding key values, such calmness and predictability; being visible to those you lead; and understanding the nature of politics.
A GOOD MEMORY
A singular thing about me is my memory. As a boy, I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers; in France, I not only knew the names of the officers of all the regiments, but also where the corps had been recruited, had distinguished themselves; I even knew their spirit.
Napoleon knew, as most modern salespeople do, that a good memory is critical when building relationships. The best salespeople not only know their customers’ names, but know their customers’ family’s names, their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and any other bits of information that help build a relationship. Using the same approach, a project manager can develop better relationships with stakeholders, project team members, peers, and management.
A good memory is also valuable for team selection, for example, remembering certain nuances about individuals that would make them more or less valuable on one task or another. Remembering people’s past successes in general is important. All too often, managers only judge people by their most recent activity, ignoring all of their past accomplishments and capabilities. Likewise, it is critical to remember the factors that motivate each individual, as each person’s needs may be different.
Remembering things about people is only one benefit of having a good memory. Another is the ability to remember the small details that can make or break a project, for example some obscure fact that usually comes back to cause havoc later. The saying, “The devil is in the details,” holds true when talking about project management. Napoleon was known to peruse relevant data and detailed reports from the field throughout the night. It is to his credit that he was able to recall these small details on a moment’s notice, often giving the impression of spontaneous ingenuity (more on this later.)
Finally, an area that most project managers ignore is the art of giving presentations. Building your memory skills can go a long way toward avoiding the much-overused crutch of PowerPoint. There is nothing worse than giving a presentation with your back to the audience and reading bullets from a PowerPoint slide (other than perhaps having to sit through such a presentation). A good presentation should appear natural and energetic, with tools like PowerPoint used as props to illustrate key points through meaningful graphics, rather than the presenter merely narrating bullets that the audience can read for themselves (although handouts should always be given). The basis of any presentation should be built upon a good memory and avoid the overuse of notes and bulleted slides.
Perhaps Peter Norvig’s humorous parody of Abraham Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address as a PowerPoint presentation illustrates this point best (you can see it on the Web at http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/). Norvig is the Director of Search Quality at Google Inc. and a Fellow and Councilor of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. His parody is included as part of Edward Tufte’s course on information presentation.
So, how can you improve upon your memory and utilize it as well as possible throughout all these activities?
In today’s day and age, people try all kinds of things to improve their memory, from herbal remedies to mental exercises. Probably the best way to remember things (as pointed out in numerous books and articles) is to use the association method, since we all tend to remember things by associating them with something, usually a word or visual cue. In effect, by doing this, we are subconsciously building anchors in our mind between the cues and the memories we associate them with.
Another method that helps solidify things in our mind is repetition (which is why actors and singers learn their lines by endless practice, and why advertisements use jingles and catch-phrases to stick in people’s minds). Through association and repetition, we can remember key facts that would otherwise be lost to oblivion.
Even with the above methods, there is no reason to leave things to chance when you can simply write something down, even if it’s a small “trigger” keyword (assuming you remember to look at what you’ve written). Today, we have all sorts of tools for keeping track of things, from appointment books to PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). In addition to calendars and to-do lists, all PDAs come with a memo section that is invaluable for capturing notes about people, projects, ideas, or anything else you need to recall at a moment’s notice. Of course, if you’re giving a presentation, it’s ideal not to rely on the use of notes, but if you do, index cards with brief trigger words are quite acceptable. All in all, it is hard to dispute that a good memory could do well to serve any leader, whether in business or otherwise, and fortunately there are many tools and techniques today that can help.
THE POWER OF MATHEMATICS
To be a good general, a man must know mathematics; it is of daily help in straightening one’s ideas. Perhaps I owe my success to my mathematical conceptions; a general must never imagine things; that is the most fatal of all. My great talent, the thing that marks me most, is that I see things clearly; it is the same with my eloquence, for I can distinguish what is essential in a question from every angle.
Mathematics probably isn’t high on most project managers’ and leaders’ lists of important skills to build. Yet, almost all phases of a project, from project selection, to task estimates, to risk analysis, to decision-making during project execution, require some sort of mathematical skills.
For project selection, knowledge of Return-on-Investment (ROI), Internal-Rate-of-Return (IRR), and other selection techniques is essential. For cost estimates, it’s important to be able to calculate costs accurately, including variations based on risk factors. For quality analysis, it’s critical to understand statistical sampling and control charts. For proper decision-making, it’s important to understand risk probability and be able to perform decision-tree analysis. In general, planning should not be based on hunches, but as much as possible, on calculations and actual facts.
During project execution, you should be able to calculate where you should be versus where you are in terms of budget and schedule. A tool such as Earned Value Management can help you determine this as early as 15 percent into the project (a good book on this is Earned Value Project Management, by Quentin W. Fleming and Joel M. Koppelman).
For all of these needs—since many of us are not armchair mathematicians—it’s useful to keep a list of handy calculations and algorithms, most of which are included in any PMP (Project Management Professional) Exam Study Guide. A couple of good ones that include all of the calculations a project manager would need (among other tools and techniques vital to any project manager) are: PMP Exam Prep (4th Edition) by Rita Mulcahy; and Preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification Exam, Second Edition, by Michael W. Newell. Type the most useful calculations into your PDA or notebook, and you’re well equipped for success.
The bottom line is that, as Napoleon has so astutely pointed out, whether selecting, planning, or executing a project, a great leader, and certainly a great project manager, cannot underestimate the value of building the mathematical skills necessary to make proper decisions. Facts and calculated estimates are always better than guesses and hunches.
COOL AND COLLECTED
The first qualification in a general-in-chief is a cool head–that is, a head which receives just impressions, and estimates things and objects at their real value. He must not allow himself to be elated by good news, or depressed by bad. The impressions he receives…should be so classified as to take up only the exact place in his mind that they deserve to occupy; since it is upon a just comparison and consideration of the weight due to different impressions that the power of reasoning and of right judgment depends… I could listen to intelligence of the death of my wife, of my son, or all of my family, without a change of feature. Not the slightest sign of emotion, or alteration of countenance, would be visible. Everything would appear indifferent and calm. But when alone in my room, then I suffer. Then the feelings of the man burst forth.
In his memoirs, Napoleon was often surprisingly candid, such as in this case, revealing how he suffered internally while appearing cool and collected to others (a trait he often spoke of as being necessary for a great leader). Of course, this is an extreme example (and probably a great exaggeration), but the point is that a leader cannot appear to subordinates as vulnerable—or worse yet, unpredictable. People do not trust a leader who is inconsistent, irrational, or weak.
With this in mind, if problems arise, either with the project or with some external factor that could impact the team or the leader, it is important for the leader to show strength and confidence. Nothing can unravel a team more quickly than a leader who overreacts or becomes disillusioned. That is not to say the leader should display false bravado or inappropriate cheerfulness, merely a solid, even temperament. << CALLOUT: Nothing can unravel a team more quickly than a leader who overreacts or becomes disillusioned.>>
In addition, Napoleon points out the importance of categorizing and weighing news, not only according to its rightful value, but also after considering potentially varying impressions of the same news. There may be unseen benefits in what appears to be bad news, and there may be dangers lurking behind seemingly good news. Overreacting to either good news or bad news can take away from the true picture, and can have an unpredictable impact on the morale of a team.
For example, a leader may want to rejoice when a major milestone has been achieved (and certainly there is some benefit to celebrating small victories), but until all the loose ends are resolved and the expected value has been delivered, the project is not over. The team must still maintain focus.
Likewise, a leader may go on a tirade upon hearing that a team member forgot to do something or that a stakeholder issued a complaint, or may appear convinced that the project cannot succeed, but the fact is that these are merely triggers to see if a process needs correction or if communication needs to be improved. A negative or cynical attitude tends to spread throughout a team like a disease, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cooler heads must prevail.
So, next time you find yourself getting all worked up or disillusioned, take time to examine the facts from all angles. Keep things in proper perspective. Be sure to consider the impact of your reaction on your team’s morale and the potential effect on their behavior. Likewise, if you find yourself being elated by good news before the project is over, just be cautious that the team doesn’t misinterpret your elation as an opportunity to relax and lose focus. Most of all, don’t let your emotions, good or bad, get in the way of sound judgment.
GO AMONGST THE SOLDIERS
Nature formed all men equal. It was always my custom to go amongst the soldiers and the rabble, to converse with them, hear their little histories, and speak kindly to them. This I found to be the greatest benefit to me.
One of the things that made Napoleon so popular with his troops was that he was always visible. He’d frequently go to the front lines and mingle with the troops, first to inspire them, but second to get a sense of how they were feeling and what was on their minds. This goes back to building relationships by finding out the details of your team’s lives. Several companies in today’s business atmosphere have a “Be Visible, Be Seen,” policy for their managers (some companies call it “Management by Wandering Around” or MBWA—a term used at Hewlett-Packard and popularized in the landmark book, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman). As the correlation with Napoleon’s theories can testify, this is certainly a good approach to adopt.
One thing to be cautious of when wandering around, though, is not to micromanage. There is a tremendous difference between being visible and micromanaging. It is one thing to mingle, to ask how things are going or if there is anything you can do to help. In this way, you are in a position to remove any barriers your team is facing. It is another to hover over people’s backs and nitpick about what they’re doing wrong. Better to ask if help is needed.
If you can tell that a correction in course is needed, clarify the objective either privately or generically to the team (if you feel the team could benefit from the clarification). Training could also be suggested as needed. Another way to get a point across is to schedule a joint working session where you can work with the team member (or team) to accomplish something; meanwhile, they’re learning from you during the session in a noncombative way.
The bottom line is that there are three primary purposes for mingling with your team: to build relationships with them (which in turn builds trust), to see if there are any barriers that you can remove for the team, and to get a sense of the team’s morale. It is important not to let micromanagement undermine these goals.
THE FUTILITY OF TYRANNY
Rule cannot be despotic because there is neither a feudal system, a mediatory body, nor a precedent on which it can act. As soon as a government becomes tyrannical, it must suffer in public opinion and will never regain confidence. Therefore, a Council is necessary for unforeseen cases, and the Senate is most suitable for this purpose. In my opinion, there is no such thing as despotism pure and simple. Ideas are relative. If a sultan has heads cut off at his pleasure, his own head is in most danger of all, for that very reason, of suffering the same fate.
Although Napoleon was perceived by many to be tyrannical in his own right (he was strict, but always observed caution regarding treatment of his soldiers and staff), even he knew that, in truth, power is given and not taken. With this in mind, a project manager or leader cannot let the position go to his or her head. Power must be earned by building trust and respect. Trust and respect must be earned by actions and fair treatment of others. That is true power.
As for ambition, although a sense of purpose is good, one can become overly ambitious, tossing all good judgment aside to achieve that purpose. Even Napoleon realized the dangers of absolute power, and suggested some sort of Council (in his case, the Senate) for keeping things in check. Of course, in business, we have executive boards and various leadership councils for this purpose.
Following this principle, a project manager would be wise to appoint a core team, especially for large projects, to insure that all things are considered and to balance out ideas. It’s quite easy to come up with an idea and be so sure it is correct until someone points out the dangers or some new perspective.
That said, there can still, ultimately, only be one leader. It is ineffective to lead by committee. Full consensus cannot usually be achieved, and operations can become stagnant. The leader must consider the opinions and perspectives of the core team, yet must be able to make the final decision if needed. That is not to say that the team should not work together first to solve a problem, nor is it to say that the leader should run amok against the wishes of the team. As Napoleon pointed out, any leader who uses a position of power to act against public opinion is in danger of losing that power. << As Napoleon pointed out, any leader who uses a position of power
to act against public opinion is in danger of losing that power. >>
The issue of a leader having the ultimate authority is a tricky one, and some may point to modern democratic governments where a senate and/or some other ruling body has the power to veto or even remove a president or prime minister. For example, let’s examine the United States government’s system of “checks and balances.” The President can veto bills approved by Congress; the Supreme Court can declare a law passed by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President or Federal Court justices and judges.
This is indeed a valid precaution against any one individual or group running amok (although it’s not foolproof), but with the exception of a public company with an executive board and shareholders, there is nothing close to it in the corporate world, and there probably never will be. The best we can do is get as close as we can to a situation where everybody must answer to somebody.
In the leader’s case, as Napoleon pointed out, becoming tyrannical serves no one, and will usually lead to failure, either through recognition of such by superiors or peers, or lack of support by subordinates. The most enlightened leaders will implement a 360° feedback system, where the leader gathers feedback from peers, subordinates, and his or her manager, then compares it with his or her own self-evaluation and makes adjustments accordingly. There are countless software products available on the Internet exclusively for this purpose (as will be evident if you do a search on “360 feedback.”) Of course, a simple Zoomerang survey would work quite adequately. Zoomerang is a valuable, inexpensive tool that allows you to tailor and send surveys via the Internet. It collects and categorizes the results for you, and you can download them as needed. Zoomerang is available at www.zoomerang.com.
That said, even with all of the best intentions and listening to the feedback of others, sometimes a leader faces a dilemma when the apparent right decision is an unpopular one. How far to go in pleasing the majority versus making the right, but possibly less popular, decision, is another tricky subject that we will explore next.
What is popularity? What is gentleness? … One must serve a nation worthily, but not take pains to flatter the people. To win them, you must do them good. For nothing is more dangerous than to echo people’s opinions and say just what they want to hear. When afterwards, they do not get all they want, they get restless and believe you have broken your word. And if you oppose them, they hate you in proportion as they think themselves deceived.
At first glance, Napoleon’s words appear to conflict with one another: Be aware of public opinion, but don’t merely echo it in your decisions; perceive what is best for the people, rather than listen to what they are saying. So far, this seems consistent and understandable. Napoleon is admitting that it is vital to be aware of public opinion, yet he is cautioning not to blindly follow it. Just because the great majority feels a certain way does not mean that they are correct. Yet, Napoleon goes on to say that his policy is to rule according to the great majority.
Is this an inconsistency, or is Napoleon merely throwing the public a bone, echoing the Roman sentiment for keeping the masses happy with bread and circuses? Examining deeper, it appears instead that Napoleon is saying that, yes, it is vital to be aware of public opinion; it is even valuable to cater to public opinion wherever possible, yet it is equally important not to blindly follow public opinion, as the public is not always aware of all circumstances, nor are they always correct.
Does this mean that a leader should follow his or her instinct, even if it seems like the world is opposed? Again, the answer is no, as Napoleon has already warned us of the dangers of going against public opinion. It is the rare case indeed that a leader has been successful going against public opinion in the interest of doing what is right (U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to temporarily close banks during the Great Depression to allow time to regroup would seem to be an example of this).
It seems instead that, when the right decision appears to be over the heads of your audience (which, to a project manager, may be peers, subordinates, or customers), the answer, and certainly the safest solution, would be to first verify that you are indeed right and they are indeed wrong, and then, assuming that to be the case, to convince them of that. To verify if you are right, it is important to hear the viewpoints of others (this is where the core-team approach comes in handy). It is also important to consider the long-term consequences, and potentially damaged relationships that could occur (as success in business, as in life, is all about relationships).
If, after all is said and done, and after having reviewed the dangers, you still believe that your decision is correct, the next step is to convince people that they are wrong and you are right. This is the equivalent of convincing a conservative market that they need a new, disruptive technology (one that forces them to do things differently and enter a new paradigm of behavior). Not doing this, and attempting to force the decision, is a risky endeavor.
Fortunately, there are several valuable tools available for creating a compelling case for an unpopular decision:
These tools are not mutually exclusive, as each illustrates a unique point when trying to turn an unpopular decision into a popular one. Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” model addresses the marketing perspective, Tufte’s model addresses the presentation perspective, and the Andersons’ Transformational Change model addresses the people issues involved. Any leader or project manager would be wise to study all of these approaches.
At this point, some project managers may be asking how this applies to them. After all, they are merely implementing a project. The problem comes in when the project is introducing a product or result that is unpopular. Unhappy or unconvinced people, whether they are customers, peers, or team members, can be one of the most disruptive barriers to successful completion of a project. It is the project manager’s responsibility to remove barriers to success, and therefore the project manager must address these issues in whatever way is possible. These tools can help, and they will be covered in more detail later in this book.
Another thing that can help insure stakeholder buy-in is to create a compelling vision of the end state of the project’s desired product or result. Although circumstances were certainly with him, Napoleon did this effectively when he created a vision of an organized and free society instead of the post-revolutionary chaos that existed. In the next chapter, we will explore this in more detail.
Meanwhile, to answer the question posed by Napoleon, “What is popularity? What is gentleness?” when one is faced with leadership decisions? It is listening to public opinion; keeping the great majority happy; and maintaining good relations with customers, peers, and subordinates, while at the same time:
Doing this effectively is the mark of a true leader, and one that will be remembered throughout posterity.
The lessons to be learned from Napoleon’s career are timeless—just as applicable to a modern-day project manager or business leader as to a military general in the nineteenth century. From the value of a good memory and mathematical skills; to the importance of being calm and visible; to the virtues of making difficult, but informed, decisions and selling them accordingly, Napoleon’s advice is as relevant today as it was two hundred years ago. And now, with this solid foundation behind us, we can begin the next leg of our journey and see how Napoleon used these skills and philosophies to become the ruler of all Western Europe—and how we can use the same skills to assure success for our projects.
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