New Great Escape War Memorial Teaches Project Managers an Important Lesson

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A new memorial opened on August 16th commemorating one of the most dramatic projects conducted during World War II.

More than 60 years after the end of WWII, a memorial was opened on August 16, 2008 that commemorates the heroic men who tunneled out of a German prison camp in the famous Great Escape. The memorial is a reconstruction of Hut 104, the start of the tunnel, and will be opened with ceremonies commemorating the prison camp (Stalag Luft III) and the story of incredible ingenuity and organization that made the Great Escape possible. This event is of particular interest to project managers who want to learn how to manage an "impossible" project.

Mark Kozak-Holland, author of Project Lessons from The Great Escape (Stalag Luft III) says, "The Great Escape was a project that shows the principals of project management in action. With very limited resources and under oppressive conditions, the POWs in Stalag Luft III organized a project of staggering proportions. Roger Bushell, the leader of the escape committee, assembled and led a team to a dramatic conclusion."

Bushell had been disappointed with the number of successful escape attempts, saying "We've all dug tunnels in PoW camps scattered all over Germany. In East Compound we dug, lost or abandoned at least 50 tunnels." Bushell was determined to change this losing situation.

The relocation of POWs to the north compound at the prison camp would give them a chance to rethink their escape strategy. Bushell delivered the following impassioned speech to the escape committee, which created an informal project charter: "In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug - Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed."

Bushell was laying out the scope of a project on a scale that had not been tried before. In today's world, project scope management can be defined as the sum total of all products and or features - the totality of work needed to complete a project. Bushell asked the escape committee for a remarkable number of project deliverables: 200 forged passes, 200 civilian suits, 200 compasses, 1000 maps, and much more.

The preliminary project scope was very much influenced by the availability of scarce resources. The conditions inside the camp made the project very dynamic and this had to be considered by Bushell when defining the scope. Their captors could be somewhat unpredictable and take actions on a whim. For example, POWs could end up in the "cooler" (prison), they could be moved out to another camp, and certain privileges could be removed like access to Red Cross parcels. Even routines were changed frequently to try and catch POWs off guard.

The scope was also influenced by the seasons. Tunneling in the winter was a challenge, as any sand dug up could not be dispersed on top of the snow without attracting immediate attention. Also, the spring thaw could have a significant impact, collapsing or flooding tunnels. Summer was the traditional escape season, as escapees would not likely survive the harsh winter conditions without shelter.

Bushell and the escape committee were well aware of these factors. They knew the unpredictability within the camp increased risk and so did the large scope of the project. In the end, however, the committee approved Bushell's approach and the project began.

In hindsight, it is not a question of whether an escape project should have been launched, but rather whether an escape project of this scope and proportions should have been launched. The answer is complex. These were hardened men with a history of escaping from camps all across Germany, who had suffered years of oppression. Through the school of hard knocks, they had seen countless escape attempts fail, had learned their lessons, and had honed their skills. They were ready to adapt to the changing circumstances and accepted Bushell's bold vision. With so much skill and motivation on the team, it comes as no surprise that the project was able to proceed despite the overwhelming obstacles.

The memorial stands as a testament to the will and ingenuity of these men and their personal sacrifices. Today's project managers can learn much from studying how Bushell launched and managed the escape project through tremendous adversity.

Project Lesson from The Great Escape (Stalag Luft III) by Mark Kozak Holland. Published by Multi-Media Publications Inc. ( ISBN 1895186830. 276 pages. Paperback: $29.95 USD.

Mark Kozak-Holland is a Senior Business Architect/Consultant with HP Services. Mark has many years of international experience working with organizations in formulating projects and initiatives for developing and integrating solutions that leverage emerging technologies. He has been working with mission-critical solutions since 1985. Mark delivers seminars for project manager, business executives, and decision makers. Mark has been invited to speak to organizations, businesses, at major project management conferences including ProjectWorld, and PMI chapters. Find out more about him at

More information on The Great Escape Memorial can be obtained from The Great Escape Memorial Project at


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