Can Modern Executives Learn from the Romans?

In September 2011, Project Management Journal published an article comparing similarities between public works management in the Roman era and similar projects today.

The only significant difference that was noted from the last 2,000 years is the proliferation of formal tools and techniques we now use compared to the 'seat of the pants' (or should that be toga?) approach used by Roman managers.

However, in my opinion, the authors, Derek Walker and Christopher Dart could have added a few more differences.

For example, the simpler social structures of the Roman era provided a direct link between project initiator and the manager responsible for the work. For major works, the emperor would frequently be the person directly funding the project. He would also appoint the manager. Another way projects were launched: To enhance his or her prestige, a benefactor funded other projects.

The appointed manager bore personal responsibility for the project's success. Interestingly, he also had to lobby for the unpaid appointment. The manager's prestige and the standing of his family for generations to come could be influenced by success or failure of a significant project.

Most of the actual work was contracted to commercial organizations on similar terms. The contractor was obliged to complete the work for the price agreed upon by both parties. Failure could literally have fatal consequences for the contractor and serious consequences for his descendants.

Probably the most significant difference between the Romans and today's project professionals was the overall commitment to success demonstrated by the Romans. There were direct lines of accountability from the benefactor funding the project to the contractors delivering the work. Everyone's prestige was at stake.

Today, the complexity of modern organizations and multiple competing objectives tends to obscure the link between a project and the organization's overall strategy.

Most project managers are committed to the success of their projects. But this commitment is not necessarily reflected in the higher levels of the organization, as evidenced by the number of articles on 'selling' the benefits of a project to organizational management.  

When there is a clarity of purpose, such as building the London Olympics, remarkable results can still be achieved. Unfortunately, within the matrix structures common in most organizations, in my opinion, one of the real challenges is finding a 21st century way to recapture the Roman's top to bottom commitment to the success of each project.

How do you think this level of stakeholder alignment could be achieved in your organization? 
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