Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Project Managment Literature: A Classic text on Managment...how does it look today?

This is a change of pace. The oldest text advising project managers on how to conduct their business predates the modern science of business management.

I thought it would be entertaining, perhaps even enlightening to post chunks of the ancient wisdom and frame it using "modern" ideas.

The "ancient text" is from Nehemiah in the Old Testament. The book of Nehemiah was written in approximately 525 BC.

Plan before acting. Have a time-line
“If it please the king, and if your servant is deserving of your favor, send me to Judah, to the city where my ancestors are buried, that I may rebuild it.” Then the king, with the queen seated beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take and when will you return?” My answer was acceptable to the king and he agreed to let me go; I set a date for my return.

Secure resources before starting
I asked the king further: “If it please the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of West-of-Euphrates, that they may give me safe-conduct till I arrive in Judah; also a letter for Asaph, the keeper of the royal woods, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple citadel, for the city wall and the house that I will occupy.” Since I enjoyed the good favor of my God, the king granted my requests.

Perform a first-person, boots-on-ground review
I set out by night with only a few other men and with no other animals but my own mount (for I had not told anyone what my God had inspired me to do for Jerusalem). I rode out at night by the Valley Gate, passed by the Dragon Spring, and came to the Dung Gate, observing how the walls of Jerusalem were breached and its gates consumed by fire. Then I passed over to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool. Since there was no room here for my mount to pass with me astride, I continued on foot up the wadi by night, inspecting the wall all the while, until I once more reached the Valley Gate, by which I went back in. The magistrates knew nothing of where I had gone or what I was doing, for as yet I had disclosed nothing to the Jews, neither to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the magistrates, nor to the others who were to do the work.

Ensure recognition is dispensed with a lavish and accurate hand
Eliashib the high priest and his priestly kinsmen took up the task of rebuilding the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, then continued the rebuilding to the Tower of the Hundred, the Tower of Hananel. At their side the men of Jericho were rebuilding, and next to them was Zaccur, son of Imri. The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the people of Hassenaah; they timbered it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars. At their side Meremoth, son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz, carried out the work of repair; next to him was Meshullam, son of Berechiah, son of Meshezabel; and next to him was Zadok, son of Baana.

Assign work that is meaningful at a personal level
Above the Horse Gate the priests carried out the work of repair, each opposite his own house. After them Zadok, son of Immer, carried out the repair opposite his house, and after him the repair was carried out by Shemaiah, son of Shecaniah, keeper of the East Gate. After him, Hananiah, son of Shelemiah, and Hanun, the sixth son of Zalaph, repaired the adjoining sector; after them, Meshullam, son of Berechiah, repaired the place opposite his own lodging.

Multitasking is sometimes a necessary evil
When our enemies realized that we had been warned and that God had upset their plan, we all went back, each to our own task at the wall. From that time on, however, only half my work force took a hand in the work, while the other half, armed with spears, bucklers, bows, and breastplates, stood guard behind the whole house of Judah as they rebuilt the wall. The load carriers, too, were armed; each worked with one hand and held a weapon with the other. Every builder, while working, had a sword tied at his side.

Have a plan to communicate
A trumpeter stood beside me, for I had said to the nobles, the magistrates, and the rest of the people: “Our work is scattered and extensive, and we are widely separated from one another along the wall; wherever you hear the trumpet sound, join us there; our God will fight with us.” Thus we went on with the work, half with spears in hand, from daybreak till the stars came out.

Do not take excessive advantage of supplier’s misfortune
Then there rose a great outcry of the people and their wives against certain of their Jewish kindred. Some said: “We are forced to pawn our sons and daughters in order to get grain to eat that we may live.” Others said: “We are forced to pawn our fields, our vineyards, and our houses, that we may have grain during the famine.” Still others said: “To pay the king’s tax we have borrowed money on our fields and vineyards. And though these are our own kindred, and our children are as good as theirs, we have had to reduce our sons and daughters to slavery, and violence has been done to some of our daughters! Yet we can do nothing about it, for our fields and vineyards belong to others.”

You will never make some critics happy. Don't squander resources trying to please them
When it had been reported to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and our other enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and that there was no breach left in it (though up to that time I had not yet set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us hold council together at Chephirim in the plain of Ono.” They were planning to do me harm. I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am engaged in a great enterprise and am unable to come down. Why should the work stop, while I leave it to come down to you?” Four times they sent me this same proposal, and each time I gave the same reply.

Editorial note: This is a fabulous strategy. By not varying the message the critics had nothing to work with, no discrepancies to wedge open. A verbatim response is ENTIRELY appropriate if the underlying conditions have not changed.

The advice is still applicable today and has since been supported by peer-reviewed studies. For example, the advice about dispensing recognition and assigning work that is meaningful at a personal level was considered ground breaking when Frederick Herzberg published his work on motivation. HP popularized Management by Walking Around.

The only advice that seems jarring is to not take excessive advantage of distressed suppliers. A close look at the Toyota Production System and the relationship with Kaizen/Suppliers might show the wisdom of cultivating one's suppliers.


  1. 6:3 "I am doing a great work, so I can not come down." My go to answer when people are trying to get me to do something I don't want to do. Shut's them down.

  2. What I noticed during my career of engineering project management, increasing numbers of non-engineering project managers that do not grasp fundamentals. Many social managers that hired contract engineers to take the blame, and *certified* project managers (see the diploma-like thingee on the wall?) to receive bonuses and praise.

    The long term wisdom you cited above benefits all. So does spell check. Most of the "certified" projet managment couldn't spell and wood nt chck.



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