Project Management on the River Kwai

27 October, 2014

The first management course I was sent on involved watching a war film and playing with Lego bricks. The film, starring Gregory Peck, was put forward as an example of excellent people management. Recently I saw a rerun of another Second World War movie, David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, and I wondered what Project Managers could learn from it.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, Colonel Nicholson’s battalion has been ordered to surrender to the Japanese and they have been assigned to build a bridge over the River Kwai which will carry a railway line, connecting Rangoon to Bangkok. Effectively, the battalion is to provide slave labour. The British colonel spends most of the early part of the film in solitary confinement and discipline in the battalion goes to pieces. When he finally gets the Japanese to work within the Geneva Convention, the unit has become a rabble. In order to get them behaving as they should, the colonel decides to make the building of the bridge a focus to restore the battalion.

For Colonel Nicholson the Kwai bridge is a means to restore morale and discipline. For the Japanese commander, Colonel Saito, the bridge is something he must finish by May! Although they differ in motivation, the two sides share the same goal. Luckily, Colonel Nicholson’s battalion is experienced in building such bridges and he quickly takes over operations.

In terms of people management, one scene where the plans for the bridge are discussed provides many lessons. We see Colonel Nicholson bring up a change he wants to make to the requirements. He explains that the bridge needs to be relocated. To justify his request, he hands the meeting over to his engineer, who provides the technical evidence to support the change. The change is approved, because the change request had been properly analysed. The Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® among you will recognize Perform Integrated Change Control.

PMPs® will also recognize the Develop Project Team process as Nicholson regularly hands the meeting over to his technical experts to expand the point he raises. In this way, he maintains control of the meeting, but provides visibility to his team. Later, we see effective use of teamwork result in a much better bridge than the Japanese had expected. Morale is so good in the battalion that those on the sick list volunteer to help when the schedule looks tight at the end (Control Schedule).

However, it is not until a commando team is sent to blow up the bridge that we have to question Colonel Nicholson’s leadership. Although he has succeeded in restoring morale and discipline to the battalion, he forgot about the war. For the colonel, the bridge was an achievement, a piece of infrastructure that would last hundreds of years, demonstrating the talents of his troops. It had not occurred to him that it was also part of the Japanese supply line.

Essentially what we see in the film is a lack of strategy alignment. The colonel has been given the responsibility of looking after his battalion in adverse circumstances. He chooses a project – the Kwai Bridge – to achieve that goal. Luckily, his vision (a cohesive battalion) aligns perfectly with the Japanese one (a completed bridge). Unfortunately, it is totally at odds with the larger British army’s vision of winning the war.

Project Managers often get caught up in these situations. Many subsidiary sites or remote offices have gone off on solo runs – carrying out work under the radar. While the Project Manager may deliver well within the set triple constraints, the work may provide no benefit to the corporate strategy. Even more seriously, the project may run contrary to the overall strategy, jeopardizing the Project Manager’s future through guilt by association.

Take the time, when you join a company, to determine what they are trying to achieve at a corporate level. Do not hesitate to ask why are we embarking on this project? How does it fit in with the overall strategy? Just like Colonel Nicholson, your project sponsor may have forgotten the bigger picture and picked a project that will achieve the immediate goals but pull the unit in the wrong, overall direction.

While Velopi does not offer opportunities to build bridges in Thailand, we do provide excellent project management courses for all stages of your career. Please visit our training page or contact us directly to take your next step in project management. For your convenience, we run our project management courses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Velopi is also a Registered Education Provider for the Project Management Institute and an Approved Training Provider for Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) so you are in good hands.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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