Frankly Speaking: Project Fireworks

FRAMINGHAM (07/03/2000) - Everything I need to know about project management, I learned on the Fourth of July. Well, OK, not everything - they didn't have Gantt charts in 1776. But it turns out that running a revolution and pushing through an IT project aren't that different. Think the universal laws of projects came from some high-priced business analyst blowing gas last week?

Then maybe we should review some history - those laws were true 224 years ago, too.

You'll never get the project schedule right. In 1776, the British figured putting down the uprising in the American colonies would take one season of military campaigns, tops. King George III was exasperated when the war was still going in 1777. But the last of the fighting didn't end until November 1782 - making it a six-month project that lasted six years.

Users will take forever to sign off on a project. The British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, but King George didn't sign the peace treaty until 1783. Then again, even though fighting began in April 1775, the war didn't officially start - with the Declaration of Independence - until more than a year later.

Dead ends happen, so make contingency plans. Remember Paul Revere? He never made it all the way to Concord, Massachusetts, on his famous ride to rouse the Minutemen on April 18, 1775. Revere ran into a British patrol after he reached Lexington and was captured. But because there were two other riders taking different routes, one of them - Samuel Prescott - made it all the way through to Concord.

Never underestimate the problem of users who aren't on board. Fully a third of the American colonists actively opposed the revolution. The loyalists ratted on the radicals, aided the British with sabotage and joined the redcoat army by the thousands. Another third of the colonists didn't care who won, reckoned John Adams. With only one-third of the colonists supporting it, the revolution was lucky to get off the ground at all.

Bringing in an army of outside consultants won't guarantee success. The British made the redcoat army their largest overseas military expedition ever by beefing it up with Hessian mercenaries. But the rent-an-army approach didn't pay off. The Hessians were defeated and captured hundreds at a time in the first years of the war, when they should have made the biggest difference - including 900 caught the morning after George Washington crossed the Delaware.

Training is always worth the price. After a year of watching his amateur army get beaten up all through 1777, Washington spent the winter at Valley Forge.

But in the spring, Washington's own hired gun arrived - the Prussian Baron von Steuben, who brought the army up to speed on faster musket-loading technology and how to march together.

After that - well, they won the war, didn't they?

Politics can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And you thought finessing your office politics was tough. In the last months of the war - when it was all over except for the treaty-signing - a group of American officers led by Major General Horatio Gates tried to organize a revolt to dump Washington as commander in chief and take over the government. (Gates had tried ousting Washington before, in 1777, and still smarted from the failure.)Gates didn't realize it, but he was being played for a sap by the Federalists in Congress. Alexander Hamilton first egged on Gates and then tipped off his old boss, Washington, who had to block the plot with soft words because treating it like the mutiny it was would have ripped the army apart.

In any case, remember: If your project does crash and burn, at least the fate of a nation isn't at stake.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is