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

Flanking Maneuvers

by

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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

A cup of coffeeDubious Dealings
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in ColoradoFalse Summits: I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
Selling an ideaRisk Creep: II
When risk events occur, and they're of a kind we never considered before, it's possible that we've somehow invited those risks without realizing we have. This is one way for risk to creep into our efforts. Here's Part II of an exploration of risk creep.
A model of a space station proposed in 1952 by Wernher von BraunHigher-Velocity Problem Definition
Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products often involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help, but a curious paradox stands in the way.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!