Iain McKend, a Senior Lecturer in Project Management, tells us about his journey from the military into project management.
Have you ever found yourself staring with wonderment at something – a building, a piece of engineering or some manufacturing process – and trying to think how on earth it was ever created? It happens with me all the time. I normally console myself with the assumption that, like eating an elephant, it was a case of doing it in small chunks.
Before the lockdown my wife and I had arranged to get out for a walk in the countryside with one of my wife’s friends and her husband - A. It was a long walk and once the conversation had covered the sport, the latest films and the current scandals, whilst studiously avoiding politics, religion and finance of course, it turned inevitably to the subject of work. It turned out that A was an architect and had, a few years previously, finished a major contract building one of London’s most iconic high-rise buildings. I had to know more as it seemed to have been a sheer impossibility to build such a substantial tower in the city with so much else going on around all the time. After all, in spite of the congestion charge the centre of London still seems to be permanently grid-locked. Perhaps all the building work had something to do with this. Anyhow, it turned out that the architecture responsibilities had been carried out by a huge contingent of architects, often working on an individual contract basis. A had had responsibility for a small – but critical – aspect of the work near the very top and the results had been fantastic. Talking through it all, I was able to visualise how the all-important co-ordination and scheduling had been carried out – with some principles (though perhaps not the disciplining) having changed little since the building of the pyramids – maybe even Stonehenge.
At the heart of the project was the project management team, with a reporting structure carefully interwoven so that all the interdependent sub-projects could be carried out in the correct sequence and at the right time – that way limiting any unwanted budget excesses. This was a legion of unsung heroes who, by their intelligent planning and control, were able to make the designs, plans, heaps of material and hours of labour into something massively greater than the sum of their parts.
I currently lecture in Project Management at the University of Cumbria but I haven’t always done that. My early career was spent in the military and, something which inevitably dates me, my first posting was to Germany, with the Cold War still on everyone’s agenda. My task, with the aid of a bunch of outstanding soldiers, was – in the event that the Soviets attacked - to resupply British, Belgian and Dutch artillery units with Lance Missiles and other ordnance and I had about forty 4-Tonne trucks to help, as well as an allocation of guard troops and a small detachment of US logistic specialists. This latter was needed because the missiles and shells we were to carry were nuclear. (By that time man-packable nuclear mines had just been taken out of use – but some of the artillery ammunition had a range of only 18 KM, so wind direction was clearly critical to avoid serious mishap).
My Commanding Officer informed me one day that the US military from the Pentagon, who had procured the nuclear weaponry in the first place, wished to conduct an inspection – a Nuclear Surety Inspection – to ensure that we Brits were competent to look after their kit. We had a month or so to prepare and were excused other training and the more mundane of barrack tasks in order to get all the ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed for a competent inspection. I ‘d like to think that I sorted all that out, but in fact the troop was blessed with an excellent Staff Sergeant, Freddie, who was a great planner, put up with no nonsense in the best of traditions and organised much of the teamwork. Although I didn’t realise it then, that was our first project – breaking the task down into vehicle preparation, specific nuclear skills training, perfecting the art of rapid missile restraint, teaching the team how to destroy the missiles to prevent them falling into enemy hands, alongside all the skills needed to hide 40 vehicles in woodland in the middle of the night, then defend them.
The army did not use Project Management processes in those days. Instead we relied on a time-tested regime of estimating and planning which was drummed into us such that it became second nature. Thinking back however, Freddie had ensured we had isolated every tricky aspect and focused on getting it right; we’d weighed the risks and held regular meetings and briefings at which we had communicated our aims, ensured we were making progress and identified areas which could be improved upon. More than 25 years later when, with much water and a few more conflicts having passed under the bridge, I was involved in a significant Defence programme, it took only minor adjustment to shift from the military planning principles to the processes and culture of Project (and Programme and Portfolio) Management which had been fully embraced by the Ministry of Defence. Teaching the subject in my second career now, it is easy to see how knowledge is passed around the class, with students’ experiences being so varied. I see great projects being delivered and I can identify how the students in the classes I teach, will, in a very short time, be involved in delivering such projects, making use of the skills and knowledge that the University of Cumbria’s Project Management course has imparted.
Oh yes; you might be wondering how the Nuclear Surety Inspection went. There was an unintended hiccough whilst we were deployed in all-round defence when one of the US inspectors tried to walk the wrong way through the cordon and was shocked to find that his clipboard had been bayoneted by an over-eager young soldier who understood exactly what his job entailed, with the blade just stopping before reaching the American Captain’s tunic. In spite - or perhaps because – of this near international incident, the inspection was reported by the Commanding Officer afterwards as being the best that a UK unit had had on record. Within 12 months, however, the successful Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) between the US and USSR, had done away with all short range battlefield nuclear weapons, so the unit’s peak nuclear skill levels became a reputational ‘sunk cost’ and the Regiment’s role was no longer required. The planning and eventual project management skills, on the other hand, had been an investment from which profit was to be reaped for years to come. I can heartily recommend taking the short cut into Project Management via the University of Cumbria if you want to avoid learning the slightly harder way – 35 years in military uniform.