Project Management Master Class: the Fifth Project of Heracles

Storytelling is an effective coaching technique, but it is rarely used in project management. Fortunately, the history of mankind is replete with wonderful examples of projects delivered by individuals who lived long before project management as we know it was born, so we can learn from their mistakes.

One of the notable PMs from the past was Hercules, a guy from Ancient Greece. In his late teens, when offered a choice between a pleasant and easy life and a severe but glorious life of a PM, he chose the latter, and his name went down in history primarily due to the success of his Twelve Projects, a.k.a. “The Twelve Labours of Hercules.” The Fifth Project of Hercules represents a notable business case that I would suggest all PM enthusiasts to consider and use for coaching and self-improvement purposes.

According to unconfirmed sources, Hercules was assigned by King Eurystheus to clean the stables belonging to King Augeas. The challenge was that the stables, frequented by over 1000 cattle, had not been cleaned in over 30 years, and Eurystheus wanted to have the job done within one day – an unreasonable requirement that all PMs have to deal with once in a while.

Had Hercules been a regular PM, he would have started the project with a proper assessment, which would immediately demonstrate that he needed more time and more people; i.e. Hercules would have failed.

Instead, Hercules, who according to the same sources, was not certified nor had any formal PM training, looked at the challenge from the opposite side – and started with

the most important question that every PM must answer before the project even starts: What is the ultimate reason for doing this project?

Moreover, Hercules realized that there are usually two reasons for everything, and hence two goals for every project: the good one and the real one. He figured out that for Eurystheus and Augeus those were: (a) to clean up some real estate space, and (b) to humiliate Hercules.

To achieve the first and avoid the second, in the absence of clear budget, quality acceptance  procedure and any HSSE standards, Hercules came up with a brilliant implementation solution: He tore down two walls on the opposite sides of the cattle yard and rerouted two nearby rivers through the stable, clearing out the dung as per the assignment.

Hercules was successful in the key PM role – finding the most effective solution to deliver the scope of work within the boundaries of the triple constraint. However, there is more to project success, but Hercules has missed a few things there.

While looking at the ultimate project goal, he should as well have analyzed his own goals (the good one and the real one) and made sure that they were aligned with the Sponsor’s expectations. In Hercules’s case, he needed his projects completed as part of penal labour he had been sentenced to for a heinous crime committed before he decided to become a PM. Thus, he should have made a clear paction with Eurystheus as for what was counted as penal labour and what was not.

As Hercules, carried away by the excitement of the project implementation, had overlooked this part, Eurystheus, the Sponsor, accused Hercules of doing this project for money (and not as part of his penal labour), while Augeus, the assumed Orderer, insisted on the opposite and refused to pay the promised fee.

Supported by a project team member, Hercules tried to fight his case in court but was expelled from the country. However, several years down the road, Hercules returned, gave the entire kingdom to that very project member who had supported him, and founded the Olympic Games as a way to celebrate his ultimate victory and keep the team engaged. The use of positive reinforcement was yet another indication that Hercules was a good leader, albeit in the process he had to slay Augeus, the former Orderer – something that we PMs should avoid doing.

To sum it up, to be a successful PM, one must have a clear understanding of the good and the real goals of all key stakeholders, perceive their expectations, build good relationships, and then come up with the most effective way to meet the expectations and achieve the goals. Good communication and leadership skills, as well as some legal literacy, are important traits for every PM to have on the way to PM 2.0.

Everything else is spelled out in the PMBoK, which the PM should pass on to the team and let them take care of the minor details.