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Learning the project management lessons from the Dead Presidents Society

David Bicknell Published 31 May 2016

As the race for the White House heats up, a new book takes a look at the project management and sponsorship lessons learned from the terms of 38 former US presidents


The advent - if that's the word - of Donald Trump has meant that this year's US Presidential Election on November 8 is arguably going to be the most-anticipated for years.

It will be the 58th presidential election, and the strategy needed to win it between now and November will require a major project management exercise in itself.

Ask most people to go beyond recent history of Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton and they may be able to think of Ronald Reagan, and, for those of my era who remember Watergate, Richard Nixon. Going back to the start of presidential history, of course, there's George Washington, then John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the 16th president Abraham Lincoln and in the Second World War years, Franklin Roosevelt, and then Harry S.Truman. And then, of course, there's JFK.

Actually, there have been 43 presidents. 38 of them have passed on, and it is these 38 that provide the context for a new book which examines the essential lessons for project managers and sponsors that arise from their presidencies.

"The Dead Presidents' Guide to Project Management' has been written by Jim Johnson, the founder and chairman of US research organisation, the Standish Group, which focuses on software project performance.

Johnson's book looks at the histories of the 'dead presidents' and pulls out some of the lessons for project managers and leaders from their 38 terms of office, starting with Washington.

As Johnson points out, "None of them are Superman. They are complex human beings. They are very talented, yet full of flaws. They are not all good men, but they all tried to do good things, and most of the time the right things."

Johnson adds that the diverse opportunities that confronted each of the presidents provides a backdrop into common issues facing project managers and executive sponsors on a daily basis.

Take Washington, for example. Washington lost more battles than he ever won. He learned from his failures, assessed his limited resources, found they were lacking and formulated a strategy to overcome them. What helped Washington learn from his failure was attention to detail. Of all the skills he possessed, perhaps Washington's greatest was in project management proficiency. He knew the detail of all his army's skills, tactics, strategies, supplies and position. Washington was a master of logistics and he would become the model for generals to follow.

What are the implications for project managers? Johnson suggests that projects managers are the custodians of details. Knowing the details helps the project manager learn from failures. Project managers can help the project sponsor learn from failure by reporting and analysing the project details.

Washington, it seems, was strong on detail right to the end of his life. As Johnson recounts, "On his deathbed, Washington said, 'I am going. Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.' The doctor nodded. But this was not good enough for Washington who asked him if he understood. The doctor replied that he did. 'Tis well' were his last words. Washington made sure that the listener grasped his communications." The moral is that good communicators are also more likely to make good project managers.

As a child of the Sixties fascinated by Watergate I was interested in what Johnson has to say about Richard Nixon and the lessons for project managers. The Watergate story was immortalised in Woodward and Bernstein's classic book - and later, film - "All the Presidents' Men". (If you've seen the film, you may remember the bit where Woodward meets his source Deep Throat in an underground car park. At the end of the scene, as the tension builds, there is a squealing of car tyres in the car park that always gives me goosebumps).

The Watergate scandal is an example of how Nixon crossed the line from self-confidence into arrogance. And the lesson for project manager and sponsors is that too much arrogance is not a good idea. Arrogance is the unwarranted overbearing pride evidenced by a superior manner to superiors, peers and inferiors. It relates closely to pasts successes. Very often, suggests Johnson, you will run into a development team that has just completed a successful project and they are so full of themselves that they fall prey to "overambition" and think they are infallible. The line between confidence and arrogance is blurry and there is a lesson for executive sponsors to know when a person or team has crossed the line from self confidence to arrogance. (Many will cross the divide without even realising it.)

I enjoyed reading Johnson's book - including the understated illustrations of the 38 presidents by Kayla Johnson - and anyone with a topical interest in project management should benefit from the associated stories and vignettes from US presidential history.

In a few years' time, I wonder what project management lessons will emerge from a possible Trump or Clinton presidency. The run up to November 8 and the aftermath will make for compelling viewing.

The Dead Presidents' Guide to Project Management is published by the Standish Group and is available from

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