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Lessons in Project Management: The Great Wall of China

By Edited Jul 26, 2015 0 0

Project Objective

First, the project objective or goal was not clearly defined by identifying a point at which the project could be considered completed and the “customer” could “sign-off” on the deliverable. Instead, the wall was initially built in small sections by various warlords in an attempt to protect their territory from the Mongolians and Manchurians starting in around 600 B.C. Then starting with the Qin dynasty just prior to 200 B.C., the walls were torn down in some places and connected together in others to provide a strategic advantage that would strengthen the Qin dynasty by preventing other warlords from gaining power. But again, the project was never finished because completion was never defined.


Initial sponsors of the wall were unable to adequately fund building the wall in a way that would render it as an effective defense against the Mongolians and Manchurians. The wall began as a series of large dirt mounds with moats around them, resembling a makeshift defense that was temporary at best and unable to fully accomplish the goal of deterring the enemy.

Core Project Definition

With each dynasty the core project definition would change. For example, the initial project started by building large mounds and moats solely for the purpose of obstructing Mongolian and Manchurian access to a warlords particular land. Then later, under the Qin dynasty, the goal was changed such that the objective included preventing other warlords from regaining power while at the same time keeping out the Mongolians and Manchurians. This change in objectives lead to departure from the initial objective, and a waste of both time and resource as portions of the wall had to removed to accomplish the new objectives.

Needs Analysis

While there was no market or need analysis, it was clear that establishing a blockade of some sort to protect China from the Mongolians and Manchurians was highly desirable. In fact, a successful blockade would effectively save lives and expense that could be applied elsewhere in a productive way rather than in a continuing and never ending struggle to defend Chinese borders. However, building an enormous wall came with an extremely high cost, especially in manpower as it has been said that at least one life was lost for each brick laid to build the wall.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Unfortunately, a full cost and benefit analysis could not be completely performed because the project did not have a clearly defined goal or a charter stating that goal. As a result, construction continued to drag on for centuries at enormous cost to the state and those that provided the labor (with their lives) in order to build this enormous structure. The benefit was identified in concept as the ability to prevent the enemies of China from successful invasions. Alternative solutions were explored only within the confines of individual political silos, which effectively eliminated those solutions as possibilities.

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Stakeholder Involvement

Not all of the Great Wall stakeholders were consulted prior to construction, which is another reason project ultimately failed before completion. Labor, whether as slaves or royal subjects, were simply ordered to start building a wall. Leaders managing the project did not consult with other leaders managing the building of other portions of the project. As a result there were and always have been major gaps in the Great Wall through which the enemies could still penetrate and attack Chinese citizens.

Project Strategy

Strategy was never clearly defined when the project was started. Initially, the Great Wall started in sections, built from a standpoint of urgency rather than being planned as a matter of strategy. Some portions, such as the one under the Qin dynasty, were built in a very strategic manner as mentioned earlier, however, the strategy did not include a final goal for completion so was ultimately doomed to failure.

Project Documentation

As history seems to indicate, nearly every portion of the structure was built when a ruler decided that a wall was needed for protection. There was no well documented presentation that included the goal, strategy, stakeholders and an organized and well thought out approach to building the wall, which would have been required to work with the other stakeholders to seal gaps in the wall.

Project Alternatives

An alternative solution would be a strong, organized military leader that could assemble China’s disparate armies located in different sections, and strategically assign them to protect the northern areas where nomads continued to invade China. An undertaking such as this would require a political and military leader that is able to work with all stakeholders, many of which were enemies, to achieve a common goal. The building of the wall enabled enemy states to provide each of their borders with some protection without having to cooperate with the other enemy states to protect the entire border against a common enemy.

This political and military leader would also have to include a plan to overcome the nomad’s greatest advantage – the horse. The time, effort and expense involved in capturing, raising and training horses that could be used to organize mounted forces would be much less than the cost to build a wall, and would have the additional benefits of alternative transportation for the people and farm labor to pull plows and wagons.



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