Tuesday, October 11, 2011

If I Had a Lever (Managing Impossible Projects, Part 1)

The following series is adapted from a keynote I delivered at the Washington, DC, chapter of the Project Management Institute back in August. Parts also come from my book Creative Project Management (with Ted Leemann), published by McGraw-Hill. 

If I Had a Lever...

When we say “nothing’s impossible,” we usually mean that given unlimited time, unlimited resources, and really flexible performance standards, we can do anything. “Give me a lever long enough and a platform to rest it on, and I will move the world,” said Archimedes, but he was obviously not a project manager. Our projects are constrained: the iron triangle of resources, time, and mandatory scope are only three of the dimensions that restrict our options.

There are many types of impossibility: legal impossibility, scientific impossibility, metaphysical impossibility, and logical impossibility, to name a few. Each has its own definition and its own specific context. Our question is more focused: what does “impossible” mean in the context of project management — and more importantly, in the context of your project?

We define a project as “operationally impossible” if it cannot be accomplished within the boundaries of its mandatory constraints. Of course, seemingly “impossible” projects succeed all the time, and there are a number of proven strategies that work — at least part of the time.

  • Sometimes a team discovers a brilliant critical insight, or is simply smart enough and good enough to achieve what lesser mortals cannot.
  • Sometimes the team gets it done by sheer Herculean effort, working harder and longer than anyone expects. The project succeeds, but sometimes the organization pays a long-term price.
  • Sometimes the team gets it done, but the outcome is compromised. Maybe the project cost more, or took longer, or did less. Sometimes we can point to the corpses of the projects we sacrificed in order to make the current project succeed
  • And sometimes the team fakes it, slaps a coat of paint on it, and hopes nobody notices that the wheels have fallen off. (Make sure your résumé is up to date first.)

There are, fortunately, some better answers, and in this and the next few blog posts we’ll journey through history to see what lessons we can pick up.

Patton and the Bulge

Let’s set the Way-Bac machine for December 19, 1944, where the Allied High Command is meeting in Verdun to plan its response to the German offensive Wacht am Rhein, popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge. 

Elements of the United States First Army, supposedly in a quiet sector of the front, are pinned down in Bastogne. Eisenhower asks the assembled generals how long it will be before Allied forces will be able to relieve the beleaguered Americans at Bastogne. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery says it will take weeks.

George Patton, commander of the United States Third Army, jumps in. . (Patton, by the way, sounded a lot less like George C. Scott than he did like Ross Perot.)

“I can attack with three divisions in 48 hours,” he says.

The response from the other generals was not polite.

Patton’s boss, General Omar Bradley, was not amused. “Ike wants a realistic estimate, George. You’re in the middle of a fight now. It’s over a hundred miles to Bastogne.”

They were, of course, right to be skeptical. Extricating three divisions from a tough fight and moving them 100 miles in 48 hours?  That’s not just difficult, that’s downright impossible. 

Let’s see why.

A division is an Army unit consisting of approximately 15,000 soldiers, along with everything they need to do their job. Imagine picking up a town of 45,000, along with all the services needed to keep them going, and moving 100 miles in 48 hours…and forget the interstates; there aren’t any. Just for starters, if you don't have a detailed movement plan, you'll end up with the world's biggest traffic jam. 

Armored vehicles are gas-guzzlers, people have to eat, and soldiers need ammunition. That means you'll have to pre-position gas, food and supplies along the route. 

A moving division is more vulnerable than a division on defense. That means you need fighting units to protect moving units, and they need more gas and food and ammunition.

A move of this nature requires a planning staff in the hundreds. In World War II, without cell phones, laptops, and GPS units, orders were typed on mimeograph stencils, duplicated, and hand-carried to unit commanders stretched out over an immense area. Today's technology is far superior, but so are the demands involved.

It takes weeks to pull off an operation like this. It really can’t be done in 48 hours. It’s an impossible project — flat out impossible.

And yet it was done.

But wait a minute. If it was done, then wasn’t it by definition possible?

Like with any good magic trick, the key often lies in challenging your assumptions. Eisenhower’s headquarters learned about the German Ardennes offensive late in the game, and that’s why Patton needed to move within 48 hours. But Patton, alone among senior Allied commanders, had anticipated the possibility, deployed his own intelligence resources, identified the threat, and bought himself the extra time he needed. He didn’t do it in 48 hours. He changed the constraints.

There’s a scene earlier in the movie in which he instructs his staff to begin planning the move northward. His staff had several weeks to prepare three different contingency plans. All Patton had to do when the meeting broke up was walk downstairs to his jeep, call his headquarters on the radio, say “Nickle,” and the forces were on their way. (His driver, Sergeant Mims, reportedly said, “I don’t know why they need all them other generals. You and me can run this whole war out of your jeep.”)

If a project can’t be done within its constraints, one obvious approach is to follow Patton’s example, and alter the constraints, but of course, that’s not always an option. Sometimes, the project is inherently likely to fail — but that doesn’t mean you don’t still have to manage it.

Next week — Failure IS An Option!


  1. He didn't do it in 48 hours. Reaching Bastogne took a week. He said "Nickle" on 19th. His 4th Panzer Division (CCR to be specific) joined American defenders on 26th in Assenois, some four miles south-west of Bastogne.

  2. You're right that the trip took a week, but it only took 48 hours for him to get the forces moving — still an amazing feat by any standards. Thanks for the comment.