Manage Projects like a Roman Emperor


Our actions may be impeded but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions, because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our action. The impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five great emperors, who ruled Rome from 161 – 180. He was one of the great stoic philosophers. Where despots and dictators study Machiavelli to learn how to obtain and retain power, I advise project managers to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to augment their project management training. With that recommendation, I advise them to manage their projects like a Roman emperor, specifically Marcus Aurelius. Let me explain…

The role of the project manager is to bring the project to a successful completion. The challenge, however, is that as the project progresses issues occur that threaten that completion. We can look at these challenges as obstacles that frustrate us in reaching our goal, or we can recognize them as opportunities for growth, opportunities for doing something different. This verges on the very old, very worn cliché there are no problems only opportunities. As hackneyed as that expression may be, those impediments facing a project gives the project manager a chance to propel the project forward.

In previous posts, I have discussed the use of RAID logs in Risk / Issue management. I would like to take this discussion down to a deeper level, how do we react to an obstacle once it occurs. Although Marcus Aurelius spoke in the broader terms of how to live our life, a major part of that life is how we carry out our professional responsibilities. According to his stoic teachings there are three disciplines;

  • Perception – How we perceive an issue is critical to our management of it, the narrative around the problem.
  • Actions – We must respond leveraging the creativity and skills of the team.
  • Will – We must accept that there are things beyond our control, or as stoics often say Amor Fati, to love our fate.

As we consider how these relate to project management, we begin with perception which is understanding the nature of the problem. What happened? The question of why something happened, although related, is another facet of problem resolution. First, we must define the problem, what we do and don’t know. For those things that we don’t know we research, gathering information to ensure that we have a complete understanding of the issue. I have found that it is not uncommon that as we develop the complete picture of what happened, the resolution of the issue becomes apparent.

Perception leads to action. Action is where we define and implement a solution. Two popular approaches to problem resolution are mind mapping and brainstorming. My personal preference is brainstorming. I find it to be more natural as well as more consistent with my collaborative approach to project management. Depending on the scope of the problem, I gather the relevant team member together to define a resolution. This could range from working with an individual contributor at his or her desk to each of the technical leads and stakeholders in a conference room. Regardless of the size of the group, this is where we leverage the creativity of the team to define a resolution to the problem. Encouraging session participants to provide suggestions, thinking and speaking freely without fear of reprisal from other team members.

When the team defines multiple solutions, we perform a trade-off analysis. Where we compare the solutions according to key parameters with relative weighting. For example, weighing the time it takes to implement a solution relative to its cost. Once selected, we, of course, proceed to implement the solution.

Along with problem definition and resolution is cause analysis. This is the Will, the willing acceptance of what is and is not in our control. Once we fully understand the relevant aspect of the problem, we need to understand the cause, the root cause, of the issue. This is key to understanding if our solution addresses that actual problem and not just its symptom. There is the old joke of the man who says to his doctor that he is in pain whenever he lifts his arm above his head. So, the doctor advises him to not lift his arm above his head. The doctor’s advice doesn’t really solve the problem, it simply addresses the symptom. The solution must address the why of the problem.

The other important aspect of root cause analysis is to understand whether the cause of an issue is within our control. For those issues that are within our control we implement the appropriate policies and procedures to avoid a repetition of the problem. For those issues that are outside of our control, we first accept that they are outside of our control while developing plans if they should occur again.

Although I have presented these three disciplines in this particular order, that is not to imply that they are sequential. These are disciplines, not procedural steps. The point of these disciplines is that they outline a way of viewing the world around us. These processes can be performed iteratively or simultaneously, within reason.

As I have written in the past, it is unfortunate that philosophy is not a core requirement for engineering majors and project managers. The concepts of philosophy apply to not only our daily personal lives, but to how we carry out our professional responsibilities. To remind myself of the principles of stoic project management, I have a note stuck to the edge of my screen with these reminders:

  • Objective Judgement – Now at this minute.
  • Unselfish Action – Now at this minute.
  • Willing Acceptance – Now at this minute.

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