How is a Project Manager like a Navy Seal?

How is a Project Manager like a Navy Seal?

Jocko Willink, one of the most admired brave commanders of the US Navy Seals, opens his lecture with the following description:

War is a nightmare, War is a darkness, it is indifferent and devastating and evil, war is hell. But War is also an incredible teacher, a brutal teacher. War will teach you lessons that you will never forget.

Project managers often feel themselves fighting on a battlefield:  barrages of fire from all directions, changing demands, a battle map updated every now and then, forces joining, vanishing, leaving casualties, adding and multiplying.  Commands change frequently, there is endless uncertainty…  Sound familiar?

In a series of fascinating books recently released by Jocko Willink, he describes one of the Ramadi battles (“Project”) in which he participated and the lessons learned from that battle.  For you, we have summarized and refined the main tips that are laid out in the series of books that can be provided to project managers in your organization:

  1. People tend to look for “shortcuts”. However, the search for “shortcuts” makes the planning processes required in the project difficult, and usually leads to its extension.  Therefore, one should never cut corners, never skip steps, and never be tempted to adopt processes and activities that appear to be “shortcuts.”  These will inevitably lead to delays in the project and even to its failure.
  2. There is only one way to succeed in a project. Work in an organized fashion; go through all stages, in accordance with all processes.  Sometimes, it seems like we’re making the work a lot harder.  But, this is the “easiest”, correct and even the only way to succeed.
  3. A project demands “discipline”. Discipline creates freedom. If all those involved in the project work according to all the processes set, on time, then the need for tests, controls, quality assurance and quality control will be reduced. All involved can be certain that each of them performed their tasks faithfully; that they carried out exactly what was expected of them.  And all with meticulous attention to detail. Discipline equals Freedom – Just think how easy and simple it would be if everyone did exactly 100% of all their assignments, met schedules, met the budget allocated for the task, at the required quality levels, and with the full necessary documentation.
  4. Each person involved must be self-disciplined. This requires internal decision-making of each one involved, regarding themselves only. It is hard to impose internal self-discipline on people.  Therefore, it is very important to succeed in the selection of the project team.  This is the key factor for success.
  5. Procrastination may spell disaster for a project. Do not put things off. Do not postpone tasks, tests, designs, and plans.  Do everything at the appointed time.  Procrastination is rooted in laziness.  Laziness in a project is the mother of all sin.  Those involved may not communicate information or consult with each other, not necessarily out of a desire to harm the project but rather out of a desire to succeed.  But, this could be a “double-edged sword.”
  6. You may occasionally discover that people involved in a project may not be “the admired figures” you thought they were. You must prepare for this in advance. “Shatter idols and statues.” You must learn the weaknesses of those involved in the project, get to know them, and provide a quick and appropriate response if necessary to bring the project to its successful conclusion.
  7. Since you can not always “control” and criticize people, you can do so only for yourself. Prepare accordingly.  Allot the necessary resources of time and attention.
  8. A project (like war) is a busy and tense period that creates stress in people. For some people, this is a catalyst for increased efficiency in functioning, and for some it has the opposite effect. Be aware of this in advance.
  9. Stress can lead to chaos. The impact of chaos on a project can be devastating. Try to turn chaos into an “ally”. Use chaos to sharpen your thinking. Be focused.  Be alert at all times.
  10. Do not be like the famous Nordic warrior (Berserker) who would drive himself into a frenzy before a fight. Learn to control yourself even in difficult, vague or complex situations.
  11. Knowledge is power. Know about a project in detail. Ask questions. Examine. Constantly study what occurs in the project and its internal and external environment. If you don’t understand something, investigate, ask, do not let go, do not give up, do not skip. Be well versed in all the details of the project.
  12. Fight and display high battle readiness at all times. Be alert, energetic, disciplined and mentally and physically fit at all times.
  13. Learn to compromise. Especially when your project is being carried out in a dynamic environment, saturated with changes, in complex situations with multiple participants and players, under various and sometimes-contradictory “interests”. You, the project manager, the leader, must learn and compromise.


Shay Shargal, PMP®

CEO, RBS Projects, formerly President of the Project Management Institute in Israel

*Shay Shargal is the only Israeli to be awarded the PMI® Distinguished Contribution Award, for his contribution to the advancement of project management in the State of Israel and the promotion of Israel in the global PMI organization.