Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Missions and projects are essentially the same thing. They are both temporary in nature, they usually have several constraints, such as a deadline, or a budget ceiling; and they are both intended to achieve some unique goal or outcome. I used military missions/projects from my 24 years of active duty in the Marine Corps to meet the PMP experience requirement; and, you can use your military experience to qualify too.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK©[i]) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result“[ii].
It further goes on to say that the product of a project can be either tangible or intangible, and that the project’s outcome will outlive the project, sometimes lasting for centuries. That sounds a lot like a military mission, doesn’t it? Notice the definition of a project does not set a time length, nor does it set an industry or discipline. A project can be as long or short as it needs to be, and can take place in any setting, such as construction, software development, aviation, process improvement, acquisition, or any other setting that you can name. With such a broad definition of a project, PMI has left the door wide open for your military experience to fit right inside their requirement box, just like mine did!
Let’s dissect that project definition and see how it applies to your military experience, regardless of MOS, rank, or branch of service:
A project is temporary – This means that it has a definite start date and definite finish date. This doesn’t mean that we will always know exactly when a project will end, but we do know that it will end at some point and not go on indefinitely. Aren’t your missions like that? Don’t you have to complete a task and report to someone senior that the mission has been accomplished? Sometimes there might be a deadline, or imposed date; but, other times you are given the leeway to get it done on a more flexible timeline. This temporary nature is your first indication that a mission is a project.
A project is unique – Uniqueness is an important characteristic of a project, and sets it apart from operations. Operations are ongoing efforts that must be repeated to sustain an organization, whereas a project takes place when we pursue something outside the normal operating parameters of the organization. For example, you may have been a logistician in the military with the daily operational responsibility for ensuring your unit always has the supply parts it needs. But, when you are tasked with creating an entirely new supply chain in a hostile, combat environment to overcome risks and constraints not normally encountered in garrison, then you are working on a project, because it is unique.
A project produces a tangible or intangible outcome, goal or result – The end of a successful project is reached when you have created something new that previously did not exist. Your mission to implement a new weapon system in your infantry unit while sending the outdated gear to DRMO is a project because a tangible goal is achieved of putting new gear in a Warrior’s hands. Or your mission to decrease maintenance turn-around time for vehicles entering the motor pool facility is a project because an intangible goal is achieved of 5 days saved off the old average turn-around time. These outcomes did not exist prior to the completion of the work, so this is an indication that they are projects.
To start creating your own list of projects, consider this example list of military missions that can be considered projects, and think about similar work you have led:
New weapon system acquisition
Establishing a Forward Operating Base (FOB)
Seizing a strategic battlefield objective, such as a town or a bridge
A unit tech refresh, such as replacing user laptops
A major unit inspection, such as an Inspector General’s (IG) inspection
Unit training event, such as a safety stand down or rifle qualification
Equipment upgrades, such as an airframes change
Change of Command or Birthday Ball
Because of my own personal experience, I’m a huge advocate for the fact that military experience equates to project management. But, if you want another opinion, check out what PMI says about the subject by reading their brochure titled Take Your Military Experience and Transition to a Career in Project Management. You can view and download a free copy of the brochure at this link: http://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/business-solutions/military-experience.pdf[iii]
My discussion so far should have established, in your mind, the fact that missions and projects are essentially the same thing. It then makes sense that they both require the same skill-sets to manage to successful completion.
So, what are the project management skills used in both missions and projects? The PMBOK says that managing a project involves initiating, planning, executing, monitoring & controlling, and closing the work. It also says that the work a PM does to manage the project includes[iv]:
Addressing needs of stakeholders
Effective and collaborative communication
Managing stakeholders to support the successful completion of the project
Balancing competing constraints, such as schedule, budget, resources, and risk
Doesn’t that sound like much of what you did on every mission you ever worked on?
Now, check out the list below of interpersonal skills the PMBOK says project managers need to use[v]:
Political & Cultural Awareness
Doesn’t that sound like every Professional Military Education (PME) course you ever attended…starting with Boot Camp?
But, what about my rank? Can I document project management experience regardless of whether I was a Colonel, a Corporal, or any rank in between? You bet you can!
Let’s use a mission/project example of preparing for a unit deployment to explain that.
A battalion has just received a deployment order from the division with 4 months to prepare for the launch date. The battalion commander starts by identifying all subordinate command requirements and planning to meet them. The battalion commander issues orders to company commanders who, in turn, identify their company requirements and plan to meet them. The company commanders issue orders to platoon commanders, who, in turn, identify their platoon requirements and plan to meet them. The platoon commanders issue orders to their squad leaders, who, in turn, identify their squad requirements and plan to meet them. The squad leaders issue orders to their fire team leaders, who, in turn, identify their fire team requirements and plan to meet them. All at the same time, each echelon of leadership begins executing their deployment preparation plans, monitors to ensure they are on track, makes adjustment where needed, and eventually closes out their deployment preparation on launch day.
In the example above, there are multiple projects going on, one at each echelon of command and all with similar project goals of preparing the different echelons for deployment. The leaders of each echelon of command are functioning as project managers; the major difference is the scope of their project as each one is nested within the ones above it. But, regardless of the difference in size, scope, responsibility or authority, each one is leading and directing project tasks and using the same skills from the Colonel on down to the Corporal!
Isn’t that awesome! And, there’s another amazing lesson here…
Obtain the PMP credential, and you will significantly level the competitive playing field between different ranks in the civilian job market. I have seen enlisted Veterans hired and placed in authority over officer Veterans because the enlisted Vet had the PMP while the officer did not.
Taking everything above into account, the similarities between mission accomplishment and project management for Veterans of all ranks and specialties are too close to ignore! Therefore, any mission we do in the military equates to the PMI definition of a project, and your experience doing them means you have project management experience acceptable to meet the requirements for the PMP Exam!
[i] PMBOK is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute
[ii] The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Ed., pp. 3, para 1.2, Newtown Square, PA, 2013
[iii] The Project Management Institute, Take Your Military Experience and Transition to a Career in Project Management, Newtown Square, PA, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/business-solutions/military-experience.pdf
[iv] The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Ed., pp 6 , para 1.3, Newtown Square, PA, 2013
[v] The Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Ed., pp.513, Appendix X3, Newtown Square, PA, 2013