Project Management Wisdom from a Samurai

I found myself re-reading the “The Book of Five Rings” where 17th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi outlines his teachings. As context, Musashi was one of the most acclaimed sword fighters that ever lived. He was undefeated in over 60 duels and was so skilled that he was known to abandon the use of actual swords. Instead, he would pick wooden sticks off the ground and proceed to beat his opponents to death. At this point I suspect you might be asking yourself, “what on earth does this have to do with project management?”

Well, Musashi was a man of many talents. Besides being a samurai warrior, he was also an artist and a writer. His artistic style and philosophy contains a directness that extends beyond instructions on battle strategy or how to swordfight. There is one quote from his writings that I believe gets to the heart of what distinguishes a skilled project manager. The translation goes something like;

Perception is strong and sight is weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they are close, and to take distanced view of close things.

A project manager is one of the few roles that can properly balance both distant and close views of work. Most executive or sponsors are often removed from the details of people’s day to day activities. They primarily maintain a distant view. Whereas, most project team members have a view of close things, but not necessarily the distant view. The project manager sees both.

I believe this suggests at least three guidelines for a project manager.

  1. When managing a project, don’t get so caught up in the daily trappings of each individual task that you’re sometimes blind to how well you’re progressing towards the overall goal. If you’re not careful, the team will get off track and not even know it.
  2. If there are small tactical changes, consider how they might relate to the broader project, company, or organization. Sometimes referred to as the “butterfly effect”, one minor event has the potential to change the outcome of an entire plan.
  3. There may be changes in the external environment that can have a major impact on your current situation. Always look at what’s happening outside the immediate vicinity of your project.

Besides keeping these guidelines top of mind, there’s also some practical tools and approaches you can incorporate into your work. In no particular order, these include;

Create a Roadmap. When defining a project, or group of projects, create a high level time-based visual that shows how you will accomplish your goals. This can be a simple GANTT chart or multi-year portfolio visualization. Regularly review the roadmap to identify both opportunities and potential risks.

Talk to People outside your Team. Deliberately take time to connect with people who are working outside of your project, organization, or company. This can be a simple as having coffee, lunch, or sitting in on an informational meeting. That way you’ll be in touch with political or organizational dynamics that might affect your team.

Scan the External Environment. Make a habit of taking 10 or 15 minutes out of your day to read news that might relate to your industry, competition, or related social, political, and economic environments. This will ensure you’re aware of trends or activities that could have relevance to your work.

While these tools and approaches are not meant to be comprehensive, they are a good starting point for continuous improvement. And, if for whatever reason the pontifications or a 17th century samurai just don’t seem that relevant in today’s world, I’ll leave you with one final quote from Musashi in the hopes that it may offer some inspiration in the daily struggle to improve personally and professionally.

Today is victory over yourself of yesterday, so tomorrow you will be victorious over lesser men.