Project Management Lessons from the Manhattan Project

Lessons on decisive project risk management in the face of uncertainties and limited information.

Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash

My curiosity about the Manhattan Project started in my college days. I had my first introduction lectures on Physics over 35 years ago. Now, as an engineer, I’m always keen on the history of science, technology and applied engineering. I read this book in December 2015 while traveling to Abuja for my PMI® Project Management Professional certification exam.

The duo of the late General Leslie Groves (1922–1970) and Robert J. Oppenheimer (1904–1967) were the midwives of the first atomic bomb and the nuclear age. My interest was in how the scientific, technical, and project management challenges were confronted and overcame. For project managers and business leaders, the lessons from how this feat was pulled off are still as relevant today as when the book was first written.

General Leslie Groves as one of the principal actors of those times penned a book that is unbeatably interesting and highly educating. As a project manager, I found the story riveting from the first to the last page

Unparalleled leadership and management efforts were needed to guide this monumental project to success — in terms of its aims. Many of the theoretical concepts needed for this task were as of then still nascent and unproven. Moving from concepts to practical reality took a relatively short time.

This is not a late, and misguided celebration of the unquantifiable material and physical damages and the wasting away of millions of invaluable lives resulting from World War II (or any war for that matter). But this feat was and still is a testament to American ingenuity that a bomb that was decisively important towards winning and ending the war was not yet completely assembled or tested just about three weeks before it was first deployed in the war-front. And yet, it worked on the first try.

As stated by the author, the first gun-type atomic bomb was dropped in combat without a prior test to ascertain if it will work, “Nevertheless, the indications for success were strong enough so that no one urged us to change our plans of dropping the first gun-type bomb in combat without prior test.”

From the book, it is clearly clear that; it was World War II that made the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy possible. It would have been very difficult for any nation (America included) to contemplate and commit to such a costly project (about $23 billion in 2019) in a time of peace. Realizing that feat in peacetime in a relatively short time would have been more daunting.

Despite present-day challenges, I agree with the author that the world is a better place today and is still what it is because America was the first nation to create the atomic bomb and also developed and master nuclear energy. One can only imagine what would have happened if such powers have fallen first, into the hands of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, or to Josef Stalin in the heydays of the Soviet Empire.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, the Paris massacres of November 2015, the bombings in Brussels in March 2016, and many others were unimaginably evil. Heinous as they were, these atrocities would have paled to mere children-plays compared to what these terrorists and their state-backed sponsors would have done if they ever get access to these weapons of calamitous destruction first before any other nation.

Why do I think this book still matters today? The reasons as adduced by the author are as practical now as when the book was first written over 60 years ago. These same reasons if followed through will increase the odds for success for every person or organization involved in projects.

Here are the key takeaways.

  1. At the bedrock of any successful project is a clearly defined, unmistakable specific aim. As a project leader, manager, or frontline worker, you must tailor your actions towards the accomplishment of your project.
  2. Every part of your project must have a specific task carefully allocated and supervised. This will result in unprecedented unmatched operational efficiencies for you and the entire organization.
  3. As the leader, provide positive cut, unquestioned leadership, and direction at all project levels. Any ambiguity of focus will fritter away your much-needed resources.
  4. Project managers should maximumly use already existing agencies, facilities, and services — governmental, industrial, and academic. With a finite and well-defined aim, project organizational resources can and must not be designed to operate in perpetuity.
  5. The full backing of organizational leadership is a must for the success of your project. The Manhattan project enjoyed the full backing of the American government. Combining this with the nearly infinite potential of American science, engineering, and industry coupled with the almost unlimited supply of people endowed with ingenuity and determination made this feat possible.

Notable Quotes

Copyright 1962 by ©General Leslie Groves, Now It Can Be Told — The Story of The Manhattan Project, Da Capo Press, Inc.

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