Focus on the Right War Aims

Lincoln Memorial Each autumn I have the privilege of attending a day of classes at one of the best high schools in the country. Inevitably, I get to the end of the day exhausted — reminded once again that I now have only a fraction of the energy I once enjoyed as a teenager. But this post is not about the woes of aging. Nor is it about the joys of learning, although that day was a testament to the benefits of a great education. Rather, I want to share with you some things the students taught me in a fantastic discussion of the American Civil War.

In preparation for the class, the students previously read Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the Gettysburg Address, and a letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley (editor of The New York Tribune). Reading these texts over the shoulder of one of the students, I was struck again by the subtlety of Lincoln’s mind and the power of his rhetoric.  But, the purpose of the class was not to study rhetoric.  Rather, the students were led by a master teacher to unpack the shifts in Lincoln’s thinking and public pronouncements with respect to his war aims.

The class began with the earliest document of the three, the letter to Horace Greeley.  In it Lincoln stated that the main reason for the war was to preserve the Union in form and substance as it was before hostilities began, even if that meant tolerating slavery:  “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”  That said, he made a clear distinction between the official war aims of his government and his personal views:  “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” This letter was written in August 1862.

One month later, Lincoln announced that he would emancipate all slaves in any Confederate state that did not return to Union control by the end of 1862. Suddenly slavery was front and center in official policy. What caused the shift? One of the participants in the class observed that the Union army had just won a strategic victory at the Battle of Antietam in which they stopped a Confederate incursion into Union territory.  This put an end to Confederate hopes that the English or French might join forces with the Confederacy to defeat the North. With this change in the fortunes of the secessionist South, Lincoln was emboldened to articulate a much more ambitious war aim in his Emancipation Proclamation: the abolition of slavery.

Since most of the readers of this blog are not professional historians, I’d like to step away from the Civil War and apply Lincoln’s experience to the day-to-day battles we face in the good fight for better knowledge sharing.  Many IT experts and project management professionals deplore “scope creep” in projects and, accordingly, advocate disciplined adherence to a project’s original purpose and scope. However, I’d like to suggest that it can be useful to reconsider your “war aims” during the course of a project. The purpose of this reconsideration is not to expand scope without regard for cost.  Instead, the point of the exercise is to ensure the relevance of your project by periodically evaluating the facts on the ground.  Has anything happened that makes it important that you revise your original goals? Has there been a major change in your business, your industry or in the economy generally that makes  the original goal less relevant? Or has there been a Battle of Antietam: a major advance on a critical front that makes your project more pressing or that requires that your project address a wider goal?

The key here is to understand that the situation is not static between the time the original requirements are gathered and the time the project is launched.  If you fail to consider those changes as you work, you run the risk of delivering a project that adequately addresses the concerns identified at the beginning of the project, but inadequately addresses the reality at the time of launch. This is not the best way to ensure relevance and value.

To be clear, this advice is not intended to be permission to run wild with your project.  Rather, it is a plea to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, periodically evaluate the impact on your project of changes in those conditions, and revise (as necessary) your war aims to reflect the new reality.  Otherwise you may find that you’ve won the war to preserve the Union but now must confront the evils of slavery with an exhausted army.

[Photo Credit: Russell Petcoff]

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