Reasons Project Managers should read history

There are numerous writings that detail the importance of why history matters, these usually appeal on the level of studying human behaviour, achievement, and understanding where we come from.  Perhaps idealistic, there is a belief that by knowing the past, the same mistakes can be avoided in future.

History is valued in political and management literature from a leadership perspective.  For the project professional, the past should be analysed beyond this; if a Project Manager reads history they will find they interpret events from a project perspective.

Here are six reasons Project Managers should read history:

It’s about people

One of the most vital skills a Project Manager should have is the ability to understand and engage the Stakeholders surrounding a project.  Failure to do this will result in project failure.  History is an excellent source illustrating success or failure through relationships with key interested stakeholders.  See the Luddite rebellion against Industrialisation as an example when change does not consider its stakeholders

History is an endless study of projects succeeding or failing because of the people involved.

Stakeholder engagement is the practice of interacting with, and influencing project stakeholders to the overall benefit of the project and its advocates.”
APM definition

It’s about soft skills

There are endless discussions about the most essential soft skills for Project Managers.  This blog doesn’t favour particular skills as being more advantageous, taking the view certain soft skills are more advantageous dependent on the role or project; throughout history, there are various showings of leadership by mastering a soft skill – think of the decisiveness of Winston Churchill, or the ability to build trust like Napoleon Bonaparte.

Soft skills are an underrated and often ignored ability in Project Management in favour of hard skills and methodology certification; reading about the greatest names of the past illustrate the importance of understanding these more passive abilities to contribute to project success.

It’s about evidence

The Project Manager is seen as a tad bureaucratic due to their love of charts and plans, but evidence has its place in history.  Evidence isn’t as sexy as gushing over the oratory skills of Churchill or analysing in awe the finite detail of a Napoleon battle strategy – but both these individuals saw the importance of research and evidence to support planning.

And Florence Nightingale may be best known for reforms to nursing care, but this would not have been achieved without her evidence-based approach to influencing stakeholders.  A keen statistician, she used figures to illustrate that the majority of soldier deaths in the Crimean war were due to easily preventable disease caused by unsanitary conditions and not battle wounds as originally thought.

It’s about lessons learned

Referring to lessons learned can aid project success.  History is knowledge of past experiences – whether reading it can contribute to project success is unproven.  However the Project Manager can gain insights into leadership, stakeholder engagement, risks, project success or project disaster.

History is more than mindless memorisation of facts, but learning from the success and failure of others.  Essentially it is the ultimate lessons learned exercise.

“Lessons learned or lessons learnt are experiences distilled from a project that should be actively taken into account in future projects.”
Wikipedia definition

It’s about ambition, it’s about meeting a want or need

The Pyramids at Giza were created by ambition; the Doomsday book compiled by meeting a want; the Great Wall of China addressed a need.  Regardless of the time in history, projects are motivated to meet someone’s requirements.

Some of these projects in the face of things sound impossible – a giant Pyramid of blocks made without the technology of cranes, a wall stretching across China, a record of every Feudal Lord in England, but strategic thinkers, engineers and visionaries made all this possible.   Although they didn’t call themselves Project Managers they fulfilled major ambitions that have stood the test of time.

It’s about delivering against the face of adversity and struggle

History shows examples of people achieving things that don’t seem feasible, think of the Wright brothers flying through the air; and individuals sticking to principles, taking major risks resulting in criticism and adversity for their judgment, something Project Managers face in their decisiveness.

Winston Churchill made a massive decision in World War II to focus Britain’s attack on the Italians – a more realistic prospect to defeat than Germany.  A skill of good governance is knowing when to cancel floundering projects and although we aren’t withdrawing resources to liberate France from Nazi Germany, there will be times when tough decisions need to be made on a project that attracts criticism.

In times of failure, reading history is a therapeutic way of handling those tough times; motivating and energising the individual.  Many others had to overcome hardship to succeed.

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
Dwight Eisenhower

History contains various people who used many of the fundamental ideas and practices of Project Management to create success.  In many ways, they are the forefathers that helped define the discipline.

This is both interesting and useful for the Project Manager to gain insight into people, soft skills, the benefits of evidence, utilising lessons learned, meeting a need and delivering in the face of a struggle.

The wealth of experience provided shows the capabilities of civilisation; as Project Managers, it is inspiring to think what we can achieve.


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Inspiration and further reading

Books

The Norman Conquest – Mark Morris

Napoleon on Project Management – Jerry Manas

Winston Churchill: A Life from beginning to end – Hourly History

The Churchill Factor: How one man made history – Boris Johnson

Websites

This is statistics: Florence Nightingale – The Lady with the data

Science news: Florence Nightingale – The passionate statistician

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5 thoughts on “Reasons Project Managers should read history

  1. Management is tough, isn’t it? How many people lament that their managers are “idiots”! Like we could all do a better job.

    Or maybe we could.

    If you’re studying history and leadership and learning to read your team, you’re probably on the right track to good management.

    1. Thankless task and its impossible to make a decision that makes everyone happy.

      I always enjoy with history looking at examples and thinking how it can be applied to today and what can you learn from victories and defeats.

      1. And there’s so much to learn! Like you say, the defeats are just as instructive as the victories.

        It’s amazing reading about how legendary military leaders managed their armies, morale, and so on. From Caeser to Charlemagne to Napoleon, Nelson, Grant, and Patton. Fascinating stuff.
        L

    1. Certainly! The biographies of leaders today is always useful to get in their mindset, though I do like history as due to it essentially piecing together the evidence.

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