Mike Pozulp

August 23, 2016

Wisdom from a Dead Project Manager ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Lessons for managers, taken from the Manhattan Project memoir, Now It Can Be Told.

I just finished reading Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project, written by the Director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie R. Groves. Groves was selected to direct the Manhattan Project, the codename for which was the Manhattan Engineering District (MED), after supervising the construction of the Pentagon. He was the best project manager in the Army and in directing the MED he was in charge of the biggest wartime military undertaking (outside of WWII itself).

Littered about his memoir of the MED are kernels of sage wisdom on project management. I have collected my favorites here for safekeeping.

1. Cap committees at three. Groves was required to report on the activities of the MED to an advisory committee. Secretary of War Henry Stimson "suggested that the committee should consist of nine or possibly seven men." Groves objected. A committee so large would be "unwieldy; it would cause delays in taking action; and some, if not the majority, of its members would tend to treat it as a secondary responsibility to the detriment of its progress." Groves also said that a smaller group is easier to keep "well informed" and it is easier to "obtain advice from them" (p. 24).

2. Avoid micromanaging. Groves said it best when describing the advantages of selecting Washington D.C. as HQ for his project, "Another major advantage [of Washington D.C.] was that distance alone prevented me from becoming involved in too many details, which is so dampening to the initiative of subordinates" (p. 27).

3. Prefer rapid prototyping. Groves needed to decide which project to prioritize: uranium enrichment or plutonium production. Given the magnitude of uncertainties his initial decision was much less important than the execution. Groves recognized that "nothing would be more fatal to success than to try to arrive at a perfect plan before taking any important step" (p. 42).

4. It is better to be feared than loved. "We were not engaged in a popularity contest," Groves said, "but in an extremely serious undertaking." Groves refused to allow frictions between his supervision and the Chicago group to undermine his chain-of-command.

5. Look to pathos where ethos and logos may fail. Groves needed to convince DuPont, a chemical company, to contract for the construction of the plutonium production facilities. DuPont was the only company of necessary size and technical expertise for the project. Groves gives a gripping re-telling of the meeting where DuPont made their decision:

"As the directors entered the room at their next Board meeting, they were asked not to look at the faced-down papers on the table in front of them. [The company president] explained that the Executive Committee was recommending that du Pont accept a contract from the government for a project in a previously unexplored field so large and so difficult that it would strain the capacity of the company to the utmost. He added that there were elements of hazard in it that under certain conditions could very well seriously damage if not well-nigh destroy du Pont. He said that the highest officials in government, as well as those who knew the most about it, considered it to be of the highest military importance. Even its purpose was held in extreme secrecy, although if any Board member wished to he was free to read the faced-down papers before voting. Not a single man, and they were all heavy stockholders, turned them over before voting approval - or afterwards - a true display of real patriotism" (p. 51).

6. Ask for something in person. "My experience here," Groves said about a particularly pleasant encounter, "was a graphic demonstration of the importance of extending common courtesy to those with whom you expect to conduct important business. There is no substitute for it. Going out of our way to establish initial contact with other organizations and individuals through calls by senior personnel, instead of by letter or telephone, was common practice in the Manhattan Project."

7. Do not stress over things outside of your control. The Trinity test at Alamogordo was delayed by ninety minutes due to unfavorable weather. Groves and Oppenheimer spent the night before the test receiving weather reports and wrestling with the decision to delay. Then Groves went to sleep (p. 293). Similarly, while Groves was waiting in Washington D.C. for news from Tinian on the Hiroshima bombing happening half a world away, Groves played tennis (p. 320).

Finally, I should also include the advice that Groves specifically enumerated at the very end of his book. Groves cited the following five qualities of the Manhattan Project as contributors to its success (p. 414):

1. A specific objective - creating a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible

2. Specific tasks - each part of the project had a well-understood responsibility

3. Great leadership - "positive, clear-cut, unquestioned direction… at all levels."

4. Available capital - "[the] project made maximum use of already existing agencies, facilities, and services"

5. Unlimited resources - "[the MED] had the full backing of our government."


Back