Project Management and History (4) – Baron de Jomini, 1838

Baron Antoine Henry de Jomini is little known, nowadays; nonetheless, he was a famous strategist: his ideas have influenced scores of armies.

The great Swiss (he was born in the canton Vaud) served, amongst others, with the Helvetian Legion, with Napoleon and the Kzar of Russia.

He was a very experienced staff officer; he wrote on the basis of direct and extensive experience.

Amongst other things, he pointed out that the term “logistics” was derived from ‘Major général des logis‘, i.e., `… an officer whose duty it formerly was to lodge and camp the troops, to give direction to the marches of columns, and to locate them upon the ground.’

De Jomini defined logistics as ‘The practical art of moving armies‘.

De Jomini went on by pointing out that logistic, in his times, included much more tasks than before; it had become much more, e.g., organization, records, and so on.

The final result of these developments was the ‘Chief of staff‘.

We promise to come back to these very important points; for the moment, we are more interested in another aspect of De Jomini’s work.

Every quotation (for discussion purposes) is from ‘Baron Antoine Henry de Jomini – The art of War, Introduction by Charles Messenger, Greenhill books‘.

The original book’s title was ‘Précis de l’Art de Guerre‘, translated into English in 1862 by the U.S. Military Academy.

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‘War councils’ – (Team) meetings – Committees

Let’s consider what de Jomini wrote:

It has been thought, in succession, in almost all armies, that frequent councils of war, by aiding the commander with their advice, give more weight and effect to the direction of military operations. Doubtless if the commander were a Soubise, a Clermont, or a Mack [famous unsuccessful generals, our note], he might well find in a council of war opinions more valuable than his own; the majority of the opinions given might be preferable to his; but what success could be expected from operations conducted by others than those who have originated and arranged them? What must be the result of an operation which is but partially understood by the commander, since it is not his conception?

  • What we have here is plain: “councils” can be useful, especially for “unsuccessful” commanders; unfortunately, then as now the councils’ use was abused.

We should never forget that each operation is initiated by a person (or a small number of people): if that person knows his/her business, councils should only help that person, not become a source of disturb and alternative command.

  • Even more important, an operation should be conducted by its “father”, not by a council/committee/team meeting.

I have undergone a pitiable experience as prompter at headquarters, and no no one has a better appreciation of the value of such services than myself, and it is particularly in a council of war that such a part is absurd. The greater the number and the higher the rank of the military officers who compose the council, the more difficult will it be to accomplish the triumph of truth and reason, however small be the amount of dissent.’

  • That’s everyday’s truth: everyone, especially if with a rank, has his/her own idea on how things should be done (man is very good at ruining others’ wonderful ideas); everyone feels obliged to contribute his two pennies; everyone with a minimum rank considers his right to be present and to give advice just for the sake of it (‘ however small be the amount of dissent’).

That’s the nature of man, folks! Whatever one may think, no one has ever been able to change the nature of man; we may delude ourselves, but that means accepting defeat at our own hands.

  • Truth and reason have nothing to do with the number of people involved: we could even have 30 people sat at a meeting and … 29 of them wrong.

According to modern theories, the 30th person would be wrong, for no one is even allowed to think the team-council-committee may be wrong.

What would have been the action of a council of war to which Napoleon proposed the movement of Arcola, the crossing of the Saint Bernardddd, the manoeuvre at Ulm, or that at Gera and Jena? The timid would have regarded them as rash, even to madness; others would have seen a thousand difficulties of execution, and all would have concurred in rejecting them; and if, on the contrary, they had been adopted, and had been executed by anyone but Napoleon, would they not certainly have proved failures?

  • What is the real reason of so many failures in the project field?

    Even if we had a new “Napoleon”, his action would be restrained (to say the least) by the “council”.

    Therefore, the real question here is: “Is it possible to bring even desperate situations to a happy ending, provided the project is assigned to an excellent project manager who is not unduly hampered by a “council”?

  • Another question: how many projects are ruined by wrong advice which the project manager is obliged to accept, at least in part?
  • The final question: is it possible to turn modern fads about team working into a successful tool with the aim of positively advising the project manager?
  • Again on the project manager: some projects can be both successful or unsuccessful, depending on who is the project manager. Quality is the key.

In my opinion, councils of war are a deplorable resource, and can be useful only when concurring in opinion with the commander, in which case they may give him more confidence in his own judgment, and, in addition, assure him that his lieutenants, being of his opinion, will use every means to ensure the success of the movement. This is the only advantage of a council of war, which, moreover, should be simply consultative and have no further authority; but if, instead of this harmony, there should be difference of opinion, it can only produce unfortunate results.’

  • Here is the sound of real experience: councils – team meetings – committees serve their role when they have accepted that the project is sound (no sterile polemics – “This project is crazy”, “We will never do it”, “We should change that fundamental part”, and so on) and are giving all their help to the project manager by advising on how to put things into action.
  • Obviously, there has already been a phase in which the project’s feasibility has been assessed by those who have the necessary competence and final authority.
  • Obviously, if, during the project, a team member puts on the table a serious and founded issue, he has to be heeded.
  • Let us not forget: a council-team-committee is there to help the project manager reaching his/her goals, not taking (or unduly delay) decisions.
  • Difference of opinion is good till it is related on how to put the project into gear in better ways, not to hamper the project with unending (and often uninformed and/or sterile) debate.

    —–

Nothing changes, not really

    What was written so clearly by de Jomini was repeated many times in history.

Nonetheless, then as now, the problem has never disappeared.

Unfortunately, in recent times it has reached new heights: no one can say the project manager should manage and the various team meetings and councils should advise on how to put thing into practice the best way. Say that, and you are out, to be seen as some sort of primitive asocial.

Punctually, projects continue to fail, never-ending meetings take place, uninformed people influence the course and/or the substance of projects.

Not speaking of committees: that product of the human brain has left its due place in the democratic community to infiltrate the working world.

Let’s put it plainly: as stated in PRINCE2, a project is not a democracy.

A debate in parliament is the sum of democracy, and it requires time.

An untimely debate for the sake of it in a working environment has the same effect it has during a military campaign: failure.

Let’s accept a universal truth: the project manager is the director of a project, and final decisions should be taken by him and/or the Executive (the guy who is paying for the project); all the other people are there to contribute to success with their ideas, suggestions, approaches and expertise, not to take decisions or delay the project with unending meetings. After all, that is the reason why project managers and Executives are paid for, isn’t it?

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