Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 36;   September 8, 2004:

Flanking Maneuvers

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields, including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.

Until very recently, ground war tactics emphasized control of the movement of forces and materiel. In this style of conflict, the flanking maneuver is a way of cutting off access of forces to resupply, and cutting off their ability to advance or retreat. In a typical flanking maneuver, force is applied to one side of the main opposing force, or perhaps to its rear, where the opponent's forces are less well protected. By contrast, a frontal assault applies force to the strongest face of the opposing configuration.

Project plans
generally consist
solely of plans
for "frontal assaults"
In project management, we also perform flanking maneuvers, but we use other names for the tactics. Military flanking maneuvers, however, are often more sophisticated than those of project managers. We can learn much from studying even basic ground tactics.

When we encounter an obstacle in a project, we have three basic choices.

We can quit
Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson

Gen. T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson executed a now-classic flanking maneuver at the Battle of Chancellorsville, during the U.S. Civil War. Photo by J.L. Giles, courtesy Prints and Photographs Division of the U.S. Library of Congress

We can solve it
In the military domain, we mount a frontal attack, possibly with enhanced forces. In project management, we add staff, budget or schedule.
We can circumvent it
In the military domain, we execute any of a variety of flanking maneuvers, or we bypass the position. In project management, we find a workaround, which might involve a redesign or using an alternative technology.

Project plans generally consist solely of plans for frontal assaults. We decide how we'll solve the problem, and we prepare a plan that implements that solution. We make few, if any, preparations for flanking maneuvers or alternatives of any kind that might be useful if we encounter obstacles. When we do, we call such plans "risk management," and too often, they're sketchy.

Military plans are usually more sophisticated. They include plans for acquiring intelligence, which is essential if adjustments are required. And they include possible adjustments too.

A more sophisticated project plan has resources allocated to three elements:

Gathering and fusing intelligence
Even though the plan focuses on a specific approach, we study alternative approaches right from the outset. If problems develop, we already know a fair amount about alternatives.
Executing alternatives in parallel
By executing at least one alternate approach in parallel, we facilitate collecting intelligence, and ensure a running start if the favored approach gets stuck. We might even provide insights that are useful in the favored approach.
Looking far ahead
A reconnaissance team working far ahead of the main body of the current effort searches for and provides early warning of hidden difficulty or unrecognized opportunity. If necessary, they use placeholders for yet-to-be-developed project elements.

The more expense-minded among us might resist allocating resources to these activities. Ask them this: What fraction of past projects was completed without flanking maneuvers? Go to top Top  Next issue: Begging the Question  Next Issue

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For an overview of tactics, see "65 Operational Firepower: the Broader Stroke" by Colonel Lamar Tooke, US Army, Retired. Combined Arms Center: Military Review, July-August 2001.

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