Project Management Lessons from the US’s Recent Osama Bin Laden Mission

(Overview: From The Osama Bin Ladin Mission/Project we learn that when we keep our projects lean and focused, encourage lively debate among our project team members, create multi-iterated “high res” project plans, and have the support of a fully-engaged project sponsor, seemingly impossible things can be achieved.)

A Project-Oriented Administration?

The Obama administration has an odd practice… or at least what seems to me an unusual practice for a White House team: They talk a lot about “stakeholders.” In their press conferences when asked about the progress of an initiative, they frequently refer to the input they received from key stakeholders or the need to meet with a group of far-flung stakeholders to get all points of view.

Now, I typically think of the word “stakeholder” in the project management (PM) context. I think of it as a valuable shorthand word for “everyone who should be consulted to make sure the project is a success.” So I admit I’m pleasantly surprised to hear this word flow so readily from the lips of White House spokespersons. It seems to prove that there is an intentionally collaborative approach toward the way they get things done. And, since in my world of PM we highly value collaboration, I find it comforting to hear our top leaders doing the same. Still… I’ve always wondered: Do these guys really approach their efforts like we would? Do they think like project managers?

In a recent interview, I got my answer. And it came straight from the top!

Viewing The Recent Osama Bin Laden Mission as a Project

After watching Steve Kroft’s interview with President Obama for 60 Minutes Overtime, I have to conclude that Obama, his key intelligence people, and the Seals who executed the mission were practicing some seriously effective PM. Whether they called it project management or not, they applied some powerful PM strategies to help them pull off one of the most successful military operations in history.  As Obama said: “I was as active in planning the Osama Bin Laden mission as any other project during my presidency.” Interesting phrasing: “as any other project…” It almost sounds like he’s a program manager, trying to coordinate a whole collection of projects. So… is he one of us PM folks?

After watching the interview several times, I’ve decided that this president is indeed a project-focused guy. And there are several PM lessons we can all learn from him, his team, and their mission.

Looking for Success? Keep Your Project Lean & Focused

One thing that recent research in PM has shown quite clearly is that the smaller the project, the more likely it is to succeed. Conversely, design a giant, multi-layered, multi-month-long project with all sorts of intertwined tasks and you’re almost guaranteed to miss your target. Witness the Iraq war — a huge and complex undertaking that suffered through multiple efforts to redefine it, refocus it, and bring it to some sort of a conclusion.  Predictably, it went way over anyone’s estimates of time and costs. And exactly what it accomplished is still debatable in many circles.

Another fuzzy-goaled, multi-yeared effort has been the many attempts by our leaders to get the various intelligence agencies to effectively share information and work together.  Only a few months ago (more than a decade after 9-11) news analysts were reporting that those working in these disparate agencies still complain about the silos they find themselves operating in.

Yet in the Osama Bin Ladin Mission/Project we have an example of a limited, focused effort achieving top-quality results in both domains. That is, a military objective was cleanly attained, while at the same time getting several different intelligence agencies to not only share information but forge that shared information into an effective project plan. Obama encouraged the team to work parallel schedule tracks. So while the intelligence folks continued aggressively gaining and confirming intelligence info, they were continually feeding it to the military planners who were evolving the military’s operations strategy.

As Obama put it, “I told them [CIA], even as you are building a strong intelligence case, let’s also start building an action plan to figure out… how we can get at [him]…” Obama describes how this two-pronged end-point project vision led to unprecedented cooperation between the CIA and our military agencies to shape an action plan.  The result was that the agencies went beyond the abstract ideal of intelligence sharing (which might have involved all sorts of bureaucratic boundary disputes) and instead focused on hitting a limited, shared project target. This clear-cut target became a one-time, highly-focused, crystalizing event that allowed the agencies to share “just enough” to bring about success.

The Lesson Learned here? Lean, focused projects allow people to contribute in lean, focused (and ultimately highly effective) ways. In such small, urgent efforts, policy debates and territorial disputes can seem like esoteric, needless obstacles. Better yet, they can simply fade into the background and disappear.

Encourage Team Members’ Outspoken Participation & Disagreement

Most seasoned veteran project managers have learned that disagreement and outspoken participation can be highly desirable — especially when the team is working with many unknowns. When you present a bunch of scary alternatives to a collection of good people who’ve had plenty of divergent experiences, you’re bound to get lots of valuable information in the form of their energetic responses. All this divergent information leads to better decision-making. Obama describes his team’s process like this:

“One of the things that we’ve done here is to build a team that is collegial and speaks their mind… my advisers [all] know I expect them to give me their best assessments. The fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable because it meant the plan was sharper… that we had thought through our options and that [my decision]… was based on the very best information.”

Plan, Revise, & Re-plan in “High Resolution”

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call “high resolution” project plans. Plans must be crystal clear to all the project players. Then you gotta challenge them, asking “what if?” and imagining all the risks, addressing these, and adjusting the plan before finalizing it.

The Osama Bin Ladin Mission/Project involved intense planning for several months to execute those few critical minutes of the strike. In the interview, Obama describes how his team created multiple iterations of the plan, with full presentations, followed by formal reviews, tough Question & Answer sessions, identification of options, adjustments, and replanning. And they achieved “high resolution” plans through the extensive use of models (mock ups of Bin Ladin’s compound) which allowed them to “make it real” for everyone critiquing the plans.

When describing his emphasis on planning and replanning, Obama spoke of how they kept in mind Murphy’s Law and how this might impinge upon their priority of making certain that all Navy Seals were safely extracted. The goal was to save their lives no matter what kinds of things might go wrong.  As Obama said: “[There were] a lot of moving parts here… My number one concern was how do we make sure there’s redundancy and back ups built in.. so we can get our guys out.”

The result of all this planning and “high resolution” imagining? Even the loss of a helicopter outside the compound walls didn’t lead to failure. When one chopper went down, one of the backup plans (created for such an emergency) called for them to “blow up some walls.” And they did just that — then pressed on to complete their mission.

Get a Sponsor Who Is Fully Engaged

As you can see for yourself by viewing the interview, Obama was the ultimate project sponsor. He was highly engaged, challenging his team to build its best, air-tight plan by continually asking questions, using his influence to bring in the best, most experienced people, and pushing for multiple iterations before he decided to accept the risks and go forward. And there were plenty of risks, not only to individual Seals in the operation, but to overall US foreign relations and national security.

He describes how they all thought about Black Hawk Down, the botched Iranian hostage rescue, and how he dealt with his own fears of failure. He finally decided he could accept the possibility of failure because “It was worth it… [since] we have devoted enormous blood & treasure in fighting Al-Qaeda… Part of what was on my mind was all those young men I visited who are still fighting in Afghanistan. And the families of victims of terrorists I’ve talked to…” With this in mind, he decided the potential reward was so great he had to accept the risk.

And how’d he feel about ordering someone killed? “As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose any sleep over was the possibility of taking Bin Ladin out. Justice was done.”

So there it is. Passion. Certainty of mission. Full engagement.  Talk about an ideal project sponsor! Obama knew his team was on an historic mission. We should all have that kind of passion driving our project sponsors!


From The Osama Bin Ladin Mission/Project we learn that when we keep our projects lean and focused, encourage lively debate among our project team members, create multi-iterated “high res” project plans, and have the support of a fully-engaged project sponsor, seemingly impossible things can be achieved.

What’s more, from my limited view here on the outside looking in, I think these guys embodied several key Project Management Minimalist values:

  • Create fewer deliverables with fewer features.
  • “Make it real” as often as possible with models, mock-ups, prototypes & samples.
  • Revise or reject something as soon as possible.
  • Absorb or neutralize (but don’t ignore) anyone who can reject or rethink your deliverables.
  • Revise or reject something as soon as possible.
  • Ignore external-to-the-project “professionals” who would have you puff up the project or its work processes.

What do you think?


Posted: May 10th, 2011 under Inspiration and Motivation, Project Management.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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