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Remarkable Project Managers

Throughout the ages there have been project managers who, through their flare for organizing work, drive, and leadership, have led some of the world’s most remarkable achievements. This article looks at one such extraordinary person, the leader of the Manhattan project. The Manhattan project is my personal favorite in terms of demonstrating project management skill because it contains all the elements required for a remarkable effort. It delivered a product that changed the world, it met a challenging deadline, and it was done under some very trying circumstances.

The Manhattan project was successfully led by General Leslie Richard Groves. General Groves had previously managed the project which built the Pentagon, a significant achievement on its own. The project had actually been started in 1941 under the name "S-1” and was being managed by a civilian project manager, Arthur Compton. The S-1 project was charged with delivering fissile materials, with the ultimate goal being a nuclear weapon. The project had already engaged most of the famous scientists who would produce the bomb for General Groves, but it was decided to change the scope and deliverable of the project to a nuclear weapon. With this change came a demand for a military project manager who was experienced in large industrial projects: General Groves.

General Groves succeeded in resolving several issues in just two days which had stymied the project for months up to that point. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General immediately thereafter. In fairness to Compton, Groves had military backing and authority that Compton didn’t. Exercising the authority that his position provided is not what makes his accomplishments remarkable. It is the way in which he exercised his authority, and even exceeded it.

To give you some idea of the project’s introduction to Groves, let’s look at his first 10 days on the job. He assumed the role on September 17, 1942. On September 18th he purchased 1250 tons of high grade Belgian Congo uranium ore and had it stored on Staten Island. On September 19th he purchased 52,000 acres in the Nevada desert, the future home of Oak Ridge, the future site of the Manhattan Project. On September 23rd he was promoted to Brigadier General, and on September 26th he received the highest procurement level in U.S.A. (AAA). Now you can imagine the impact this whirlwind of activity must have had on a team used to seeing Compton tied in red tape and rendered pretty much ineffective.

Groves was considered by his friends to be pushy and over-bearing. He was generally hated by the scientists who formed the core of his project team, but Groves wasn’t interested in winning popularity contests. He wasn’t given the project to become popular with the scientists; he was given it to push the scientists to deliver to the utmost of their abilities and then some. He was given the project to succeed.

Although the project team actually peaked at 175,000 members, the core group was the scientists and mathematicians whose intellectual efforts were responsible for producing the plan which harnessed the power of nuclear fission for the bomb. The scientists and mathematicians were the best and brightest in the world and included such luminaries as: Robert Oppenheimer, Philip H. Abelson, Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Sir James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Otto Frisch, George Kistiakowsky, Ernest Lawrence, Philip Morrison, Seth Neddermeyer, John von Neumann, Rudolf Peierls, I. I. Rabi, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Stanislaw Ulam, Harold Urey, and Victor Weisskopf. Five of these folks had won Nobel prizes in their field and 3 more would go on to win Nobels after the project. The advantage of having this talent on the team is obvious; the drawbacks may be less obvious. These men were all used to being leaders in their own countries and spheres of influence. Now they were suddenly being treated as just another member of a team and there was resentment at the change.

Richard Oppenheimer had some success leading teams of scientists during the S-1 project so General Groves made him the team lead of the scientists and mathematicians on the Manhattan Project. Groves worked on developing a good working relation with Oppenheimer so that he could hand off responsibility for the scientific work to him and concentrate on overall project goals and objectives. He did this by taking responsibility for the fissile materials program away from the Manhattan team and handing it off to the Dupont and Kellog corporations. By this time the pressure to deliver the project as soon as possible was about as intense as it was possible to get. The Germans were working on a nuclear weapons program as well and it was obvious that the first team to succeed in producing a usable nuclear weapon would have a tremendous advantage in the war. Groves responded to this pressure by crashing the schedule. He ordered construction on the fissile materials plants to begin before the drawings had been completed! How could he possibly begin construction before the construction team knew what they were building? Groves went with what was known about the plants at the time: their foot prints and the site preparation work. This approach to building plants was relatively unknown at this time and you can bet that Groves needed all his pushiness to overcome resistance to proceeding this way.

On October 15, 1942 (remember that Groves has been on the job for less than a month at this point) he makes Oppenheimer responsible for sub-project Y, building a central laboratory for weapon physics research and design. The site for this project was Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site where the first nuclear weapon would eventually be built.

Without getting into the details of how nuclear weapons are produced (I have no idea), the project required the team to produce three key deliverables: the fissile materials required for bomb making, a working bomb using those materials, and a weapons delivery system. By December of 1942, the team working on fissile materials had produced the combination that they deemed suitable for bomb making. At a certain point, the mixture of uranium oxide, uranium metal, and graphite will produce materials capable of achieving a "critical mass”. Critical Mass is the smallest amount of fissile material necessary to achieve a chain reaction.

Plutonium is an essential ingredient in the process of nuclear bomb making and in January of 1943 Groves acquired the Hanford Engineer Works, 780 acres on the Columbia River, Washington, for the project. He immediately organized the construction of plutonium production at the Hanford site, and a uranium enrichment plant at the Oak Ridge site. He organized the construction of a graphite reactor at the Los Alamos location to provide experimental quantities of plutonium at the same time and by November of that year they had their first success with a small quantity of plutonium. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the project by any means. The first attempt at large scale uranium enrichment at Oak Ridges failed completely in the fall of 1943. Groves responded immediately by changing his project plan to completely rebuild the facility. That same fall, work was begun on project Alberta, the sub-project that was to produce the weapons delivery system. This sub-project included weapons delivery tests, modification of existing aircraft to transport the bomb, and training of the flight crews to fly the modified aircraft.

The plutonium production and uranium enrichment sub-project experienced numerous false starts and restarts after the first failure in Oak Ridges. Along about this time the numerous challenges the project faced, in addition to the numerous failures must have made the project appear almost impossible to Groves. I’m sure that at this point, he didn’t know for sure whether it was possible to succeed or not; after all, Groves wasn’t a scientist himself. He did know two things: the Germans had not succeeded in producing nuclear weapons and he had the best team and best resources his country was capable of giving him. His pragmatic approach to the changes the project faced kept the work moving forward. He must have had his moments of doubt. We’ve all been there – we’re right in the middle of the most difficult, complex work of the project and nothing is going right. The team is missing deadline after deadline. Failures are eroding morale, no-one believes in the project or the project manager anymore. Poor morale leads to bickering and bickering leads to more missed deadlines and further erosion of morale. The thing that makes Groves remarkable in my mind is not his ability to keep pressing forward in the face of all this adversity, but his ability to keep the team moving forward, and not only moving forward, but working long exhausting hours under the most adverse conditions and under the most extreme pressure.

One of the keys to making a nuclear weapon is the ability to cause the fissile material to implode. This was another area experiencing repeated failures. Groves addressed this problem with corrective action: he brought 2 additional scientists from England on board the project – Geoffrey Taylor and James Tuck. The corrective action was effective; Taylor and Tuck produced the desired affect. Taylor pointed out that the fissile materials had to have a minimum degree of stability to be used (materials produced previously had been much too unstable) and Tucker introduced the concept of wave shaping which was to make the production of the bomb feasible.

Groves restructured the fissile materials production facilities to produce stable fissile materials with the new requirements introduced by Taylor. Oppenheimer and his team were re-focused on the technology of wave shaping and implosion to construct a bomb. Thinking up to this point was that it would be possible to deliver the nuclear weapons using some form of gun. This sounds very strange to us now, but keep in mind that no-one had much experience with nuclear reaction at this time, much less nuclear weapons production. The delivery of a nuclear weapon using a gun must have seemed a reasonable project objective at the outset. Like so many project objectives, changing technology made a project change necessary. It’s not that Groves recognized the need for change, or that he implemented a change to the project that I find so admirable, it’s the way in which he turned a potential disaster into a success!

General Groves had additional challenges to overcome which were not technology related. The military establishment was deeply suspicious of the team of scientists and mathematicians Groves had assembled and wanted to take a cautious approach to information sharing with the team. The added layer of difficulty in acquiring and sharing the information that was needed for the team to succeed, frustrated the team and eventually the complaint was escalated to General Groves. Groves wasted no time in delivering a solution to the problem. His solution? Ignore the security policies imposed on the project by the army brass. This wasn’t a wholesale divestiture of all the security rules, just those that hindered information sharing amongst the team. The result was a disgruntled segment of army brass, an unfettered flow of information among the team, and the eventual success of the project.

By the end of 1944, the project had turned the corner. On October 27th Oppenheimer approved the first test of a nuclear bomb. Approval was later given by Groves who had ultimate approval authority on the project. Also accomplished by the end of 1944:

  • The uranium enrichment facilities succeed in increasing their production rate. Production was not yet at the level needed to make a bomb, but they had mastered to technology needed to reach that rate.
  • The wave shaping technology was successful in proving the feasibility of an implosion bomb.
  • Problems with plutonium production were resolved and large scale production of plutonium began.

Work to date had finally succeeded in delivering the pilots that proved fissile materials could be produced in sufficient quantities to build a bomb, now work would begin on producing the bomb. General Groves imposed an August 1st deadline for readiness to deliver the first nuclear weapon (the decision to actually deliver the weapon would be made by about the only man that Groves was answerable to at this point: President Harry S. Truman). In the intervening 7 months of 1945 the project needed to:

  • Increase the rate of production of enriched uranium from 90 grams/day to 204 grams/day, a level necessary to produce a workable bomb.
  • Pilot the construction of an implosion bomb to prove its feasibility. The gun delivery method was still the backup plan, but by this time all hopes were fixed on the implosion approach.
  • Complete work on a nuclear reactor and bring the plant on line.
  • Complete work on a thermal diffusion plant and begin producing enriched uranium in sufficient quantities.
  • Build a nuclear bomb and explode it, without causing injury or property damage, to prove the feasibility of delivery of the bomb.
  • Choose the target, plan the flight, choose the bomber and crew and prepare them for the flight.

On July 16th, 1945, the first nuclear bomb (named Gadget) was tested in the New Mexican dessert near Los Alamos. The test was a success, and that was just as well for Groves as he had already dispatched Little Boy, the bomber, and the bomber flight crew to an island near enough to Japan to deliver the bomb and return. Do you see a recurring theme here? General Groves has yet again crashed the schedule to meet a tight deadline.

The rest, as they say, is history. Harry Truman gave his approval to drop Little Boy on Hiroshima on August the 6th, 1945 and Fat Man on Nagasaki on August 9th. The resulting carnage hastened the end of the war in the Pacific; war in Europe had already ended in May of 1945 with Hitler’s defeat. The purpose of this article is not to argue the moral issues involved, merely to use General Gate’s accomplishments to illustrate the leadership qualities I believe distinguish truly remarkable project managers from the rest of us mortals.

Ignoring for the moment the moral implications of the atomic bomb, something that General Groves did, Groves took on a huge project with a team that reached 175,000 members at its peak, overcame numerous technical challenges, to deliver the planned scope of the project on time. Budget was certainly not a priority for this project, although there was one presumably so I haven’t discussed it here. I say that the project delivered to its planned scope because it delivered a nuclear weapon, despite the fact that the original plan called for a nuclear weapon that could be fired by a gun.

The project management skills that General Groves possessed in spades that facilitated his success were the following:

  1. Leadership General Groves set the stage for the pace at which the project would move within a week of his arrival. He also knew how to delegate authority so that project details were the responsibility of a team member who had the demonstrated leadership experience and technical expertise to deliver results (Oppenheimer). He showed his leadership capabilities in countless ways during this project, but those are some of the ways which stand out.
  2. The ability to respond to change Most of us view project change from a passive perspective but Groves was an instigator of change. When he recognized the need for expertise in the creation of large industrial plants he changed the project parameters to outsource that work to Dupont and Kellog. He also recognized the need to change the project requirements to deliver the nuclear weapon by air rather than by gun. Again, his ability to respond to changes in the project environment was demonstrated in countless ways. The ones I’ve mentioned here are just those that stand out.
  3. His willingness to take risks General Groves could have played it safe and accepted the restrictions placed on the project by the military’s security rules. He didn’t, he recognized that adherence to all the rules would jeopardize the project and risked his career by flouting some of them. This is just one example of his running rough shod over those who opposed him. These enemies were partially successful in visiting retribution on him. Responsibility for the country’s nuclear program was wrested from him and passed to civilian authority. General Groves retired from the military to accept a post as Vice President at the Rand Corporation.
  4. Use of authority General Groves recognized the level or responsibility he assumed when he took the project over from Compton and exercised a degree of authority over the project that was commensurate with it. If he had any doubts about that, he was relieved of them when he was promoted shortly after assuming responsibility for the project. Groves not only understood and used the level of authority he had been given, he actually exceeded it as he demonstrated with his flouting of the security rules.
  5. Setting stretch objectives for the team General Groves was leading a team (actually any number of teams) that were challenged with producing a deliverable that no-one had ever produced before. Not only did they have to produce a nuclear weapon, they had to invent and implement most of the technology required to produce the weapon. As if these weren’t challenges enough, they had to do all this in less than 3 years. Had Groves set objectives for the team that they were confident of achieving, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been safe (and up to 100,000 American lives would have been lost invading mainland Japan). Groves ignored the conservative advice and set stretch objectives. Not all the objectives were met, Groves set the project completion date for early 1945 initially, but the failures were used as learning opportunities and new stretch objectives were set.
  6. Implementation of corrective actions Each time that General Groves and his teams experienced failure he kept a cool head and learned from the experience. When the team failed to develop a means of converting fissile material into a bomb, he acquired two new team members from Britain whose expertise succeeded in overcoming that challenge. When the first plant failed to produce materials in sufficient quantities to produce a bomb, he learned from the experience and restructured the plant. All these corrective actions were successful in saving the project.

Very, very few of us will ever have an opportunity to demonstrate our capabilities in the way that Leslie Groves did. What we can do is be very grateful to him for demonstrating the importance of the project management role for the entire world and to emulate some of his strengths. If we’re just moderately successful in imitating the Leslie Groves model we’ll be better project managers. We should start by hanging a picture of him on our office wall to remind us of his contributions. I think I’ll do that now, if only I could find a picture of him where he’s smiling…….