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Why Project Management is like attacking a hill*

So people often ask me the similarities between my old job as an Officer in the Parachute Regiment in the British Army, and my new job in Project Management in Financial Services.

* no hills were attacked during this note!

Well, they don’t actually ask me for similarities, they ask about differences (‘it must be very different to your time in the Army’), but there are many factors that are in fact the same.  So if people ever ask how much experience I have of running projects, it is not just my 4 years at Schroders, but also my 16 years in the Army, because attacking a hill, is, well, a project.

In the Army we do the Combat estimate, in the civilian world it is the plan.  But many of the questions I ask myself, or others, when being ordered to attack a hill, are the same as when being asked to run a project {note the slight difference between ordered and asked!}.

I have kept this list to 7, this is no reflection on the Army’s ‘7 questions’ which it teaches its commanders to use to produce a plan, and there are of course many more similarities as well.  Also there are similar analogies that could be made for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, but I am commenting from my own experience here and using a classic Army example.

Goal/Outcome. Always ask why.

Why do you want me to attack the hill is always a good question to ask as is why do you want the project completed?  What are the overall objectives and the goals?  Knowing this is vital.  If I am told I need to attack a hill in order to seize high ground, I know that I can’t just destroy the hill, I need to physically take it.  Likewise, in project management the overall outcome is often important in how the work is planned and of course how it is handed over as a business benefit further down the line.


Be it people to attack a hill, or people to complete a Project I am always going to need people.  But also I am going to want certain types of people; to attack a hill I might want a sniper and a machine-gunner, to complete a project I may need differing amounts of analyst or developer resources.  Budget is also a factor here, are these contractors, resource augmentation or full-time headcount?  When I am attacking a hill I am maybe less likely to ask what it is costing, but my budget before the attack is in effect what ammunition and weapons I have.


There may be a set of constraints around attacking the hill; When can I start, when must I finish? It is of course the same for a Project, there will always be a start date, and often an end date, these milestones may be set internally or perhaps a regulatory requirement, but time is important.


I also need to understand the pro-rata importance of my action against other work; if I am the only person attacking a hill I may be the ‘Main Effort’ and get all the resources, if there are 10 other hills being attacked I may not.  It is the same in the project world, firms will have projects of different priorities and understanding this from the start is gold dust because it impacts decisions you may make along the way.


If I am attacking a hill, I may need someone to have cleared another hill beforehand (so that the enemy on that hill can’t impact my attack), well in Project world there may be another project I am dependent on for when I start, finish or at any other stage of the lifecycle.  On the battlefield I would look left and right to see what my sister platoons and companies were doing; now I similarly need to understand what my contemporaries as Project Managers are doing.


If I am attacking a hill there is always going to be some risk. I may be shot (or worse someone else might be), these risks impact my plan, whether for example I may choose to wear body armour to mitigate the impact of being shot or try to treat the risk of the enemy shooting at me by suppressing the enemy with mortar bombs so that they can’t fire at me.  Risk management is key in project management too; risks will always exist in a project whether that be a risk of being over-budget, over-time, under-quality.  To be able to properly consider and appreciate risks and issues is a vital component of both jobs.


When I finish clearing the enemy from the hill, I am going to need to tell someone, and I am probably going to want to apprise other people of my progress on the way.  The commander of the soldiers attacking the hill to the left of me is definitely going to want to know if there are enemies still on my hill that can impact their attack.  Whilst doing any project it is also unlikely the work is done in isolation and so good communication along the way is key, as this may impact other decisions elsewhere in the organisation.  This communication works in multiple directions and being a good communicator is vital.

The ‘so what’ of this short article is that many military veterans can work towards goals and outcomes; align and control resources and budget; appreciate the importance of time; appreciate strategy; understand dependencies; manage risks and be a good communicator. These skills are fully translatable to managing a project.

By the way, if you are reading this as a Project Manager, the reverse is true, maybe you could one day be attacking a hill?

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