Lessons in project management from the Afghanistan War

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Emma Dutton MBE worked with British Military Intelligence in Afghanistan, working on influencing local people and Taliban insurgents. It was a dangerous and emotionally difficult project, but a project nonetheless.

“No amount of training will prepare you for the first time you’re face-to-face with an insurgent, a senior member of the Taliban, a would-be suicide bomber or a smuggler,” she says. “I’d never felt so underprepared for anything in my life. The learning curve is massive.”

Military influencing and influencing projects overlap in many ways. For example, both involve multiple, complex stakeholder relationships; shifting loyalties; volatile environments; and even a very demanding client – the Army itself.

Here are some lessons that Dutton learned from her time in Afghanistan that you can apply when influencing project stakeholders.

Set your presumptions aside

Dutton’s team had to clear their heads of stereotypes when building relationships among locals in Helmand. For example, the presumption that the reasons for insurgency was ideology or religion. “In fact, the motivations were different every time. There was often no other way to survive or put shoes on your children’s feet.”

When it comes to your projects, making presumptions about stakeholders can be a major error. It can cause you to approach a meeting on totally the wrong foot or leave you unprepared for a reaction to the work so far. Best to keep an open mind and get the full picture before you react.

Leave your emotions at the door

Dutton’s intelligence gatherers had to be able to manage and regulate their emotions to do the job effectively. “You might be talking to an insurgent and learn that the person you’re talking to blew your mate’s legs off a few months ago,” she says. “Situations like that did happen. What you had to do was regulate yourself – you couldn’t allow yourself to get angry.”

Situations will occur that will be upsetting or frustrating on your project. You might find yourself having to talk to stakeholders that have let you down or are holding you back. Keep your emotions out of those conversations – instead, view them as problems to solve.

Put yourself in their shoes

Some of the intelligence gathered by Dutton involved life-and-death decisions. Other elements were ‘atmospheric’ – determining the perception of coalition forces in a particular village, for example. “The mission was to influence hearts and minds as much as it was to collect information,” Dutton says. “You had to be genuinely empathetic. We are all humans, and we know when people are being real.”

By trying to understand your stakeholders’ needs, fears and pressures, you can assess how best to deal with them, get the info from them that you need, and keep them onside.

Understand your own behaviour

To be effective in influencing others, individuals or groups need to be able to assess and understand their own patterns of attitude, behaviour, emotion and decision-making.

Such patterns will be formed from a complex range of experiences, cultural aspects, contextual situations and emotional states. Influencing, at all levels, is inextricably linked with negotiation, conflict management, leadership, communications and teamwork.

Dutton explains: “Building relationships with difficult people is easier if you have a framework to understand them.”

Brought to you by Project journal.
Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 12th Jun 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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