What history can teach us about transformation excellence

In the 21st Century, we hear a lot about the value of codified methods and tools for delivering big programmes. But there was no PRINCE2, Agile, and certainly, no Primavera or MS Project when the pyramids of Giza, St Peter’s Basilica or the Colossus of Rhodes were built. How, then, did ancient societies organise thousands of people over tens, sometimes hundreds, of years to deliver some of humanity’s greatest ever ‘programmes’?

Granted, many of the ancient practices employed were, by any modern standard deplorable (mass enslavement, institutional racism and deadly working conditions to name just a few), but were there any examples of good practices used in distant antiquity that we can learn from and apply today?

Surprisingly, the history books pay little attention to the organisation practices of the ‘project managers’ of major historical wonders, but a lot of the techniques and principles used are still recycled in some guise today.

Does any of these examples sound familiar?

What’s in it for me? Instil a passion for a ‘divine’ vision

It’s often a challenge to build deeply emotive, passionate buy-in for a project/programme from all stakeholder groups, yet this is one area that the ancients really had nailed down. The most common driving force for all of those involved in medieval English cathedral builds, for example, was to build a magnificent building ‘for the greater glory of God’1. This, in an age of almost universally devout faith, was something that everyone from peasant to king had a clear stake in achieving: build a great cathedral, achieve eternal heavenly bliss. Win!

Clearly, we see less invocation of divinity in today’s corporate digital transformations (although many a CEO or programme sponsor could be accused of having a God Complex). The principle, however, is simple: to keep a workforce motivated to achieve a higher purpose, the value of that vision needs to be clear and aspirational for everyone.

What’s your divine vision? Is it really exciting for everyone?

Focus on CPD: Medieval Masterclasses and On-the-job Learning

A second lesson from medieval English cathedral builders is that they knew how important the cascading of knowledge was, and that ‘learning by doing’ is often best. The ‘masters’ of each craft (e.g. Masonry, Carpentry and Sculpture) spent most of their time holding ‘masterclasses’ for more junior craftsmen rather than working themselves1, while Junior Craftsmen would work on the cathedral, closely overseen and coached by the Masters until they were considered skilled enough to become Masters themselves.

The message here isn’t for individuals to anoint themselves as ‘Masters’ and down tools as soon as they have built a solid level of capability. Rather to be successful, organisations must recognise that capability building is key, and those with specialist knowledge and skills should be encouraged to spend at least some of their time imparting and sharing it.

Rare picture of Julius Caesar working on his Kanban Board

Devolve decision-making, and matrix-manage: did Spotify steal from Caesar?

The Project Management Institute defines a ‘Programme’ as “a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.”2. On that basis, the Roman Army must qualify as one of the largest and most successful Programmes in history. Bear with me…

Roman Army Generals were big fans of transformational change, and the Army went through many rounds of organisational reform, usually following major defeats or shocks. After the Marian Reforms of 107 B.C, it was organised into ‘Cohortial Legions’2, the whole army consisting of around 22 legions, each legion around 5,000 men, subdivided into cohorts of around 480 men, and each cohort likewise split into four or five ‘centuries’ that were led by an officer called a Centurion. Each legion was a self-sufficient unit responsible for its own recruitment, nutrition and operations. Centurions were the key links in the chain of command, they wore distinctive armour, drew considerable pay, had clearly delineated devolved authority and carried a staff, with which they were empowered to beat their subordinates if their orders were not followed. Across centuries there were groups of ‘immunes’, which were soldiers sharing a vocation or skill, such as engineers, artillerymen and weapons instructors.

Fast forward 2,000 years and Spotify’s matrix management structure of tribes, chapters and guilds3 is rightly lauded for its emphasis on the importance of self-sufficient units with devolved decision-making authority (Tribes), but with broadly aligned strategic goals, while sub-groups report to a vision-owning, authority-wielding Centurion (Product Owner), while also connecting those with common vocations (Chapters) or interests (Guilds).

As far as I know, the Product Owner community at Spotify stop short of beating their team members with a staff, but the two systems still share much in common.

Which is which? Spotify & Roman Matrix Management Structures

So what?

These were just a couple of examples which don’t even scratch the surface of the history of managerial theory, but there are a couple of key takeaways here:

  • Methodologies are hugely valuable; but remember that they themselves are just abstractions based on previous learning from the trial and error practices that drove better outcomes. So it pays to be pragmatic: focus on underlying principles and the outcomes you are trying to achieve, rather than necessarily the letter of the textbook.
  • Conquering Barbarian lands, building cathedrals and creating great music streaming products may have little in common as target outcomes, but, most of the underlying principles of what is required to successfully orientate large groups of people to achieve something big have been around for a long time. So it pays to be curious too: always look backwards as well as forwards!

Pragmatism and curiosity have always been our watchwords at Gate One. In aspiring to our own higher purpose of ‘Change That Counts’, it is these core principles that guide our values, working style and constant quest for transformation excellence.

1 C N Trueman “Medieval Cathedrals”; historylearningsite.co.uk. The History Learning Site, 5 Mar 2015. 26 Nov 2018.
2 The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide) 2017, pp 368
3 Spotify Engineering Model | Growly


James is a senior consultant with extensive experience in major transformation programmes across the government, retail, health and financial services sectors. He is skilled in project and programme management, digital strategy and delivery, business case development and operating model design.