“To Rule The Waves”, by Arthur Herman : The Spanish Armada, Built in Waterfall

Reading an excellent book now entitled “To Rule The Waves”, by Arthur Herman. For you history buffs out there it makes for a pretty compelling story. And the part of interest to us project managers is the disaster (to the Spanish empire, the sole superpower at the time) that was the Spanish Armada.

The interesting thing about the Armada was that, by the time it failed, no one believed it would work… One Spanish soldier said, just before the fleet launched, “The English, who have faster and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage just as well as we do, will never close with us at all, but stand aloof and knock us to pieces with their culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt.”

When asked what the Spanish needed to win, the officer answered, “A miracle.” Everyone involved in this very complex project had lost complete confidence in the outcome, and were doing everything in their power to get out and save their skin.

As with any organization, the fault lay at the top. You couldn’t call Philip II a lazy person, but he was an incompetent project manager. The man rose at dawn, and worked till nine p.m., every day. Why? He was a micro-manager and was unable to delegate. “Philip kept this brutal schedule because he insisted on supervising every aspect of his global empire himself.

He relied on each department… to give him the information he needed to accomplish this feat of direct personal control. He suffered through endless meetings, two councils alone meeting for more than six hours a day, producing nearly three hundred documents at each session – and Philip read every report, every outgoing letter. An English spy said he did more work than three full-time secretaries; a French ambassador said that he handled close to two thousand separate pieces of paper a day.

That kind of top-down control wouldn’t work in a department of 100 people – but Philip II tried to run an entire empire this way. The outcome, predictably, was an overworked boss drowning in minutiae – and a project that failed almost before it started.

The team had not signed on; there was no room for innovation as with the loosely structured and team-oriented English; when things started to go wrong there was no way of checking or resetting (“What worked? What didn’t work?”). The team knew exactly what was going on; but that wasn’t allowed to trickle upwards to management, serenely chugging away through paperwork and attending meetings. The project deliverables were fixed and not allowed to change – and when the preconditions for success (a diversion to Ireland) was found inconvenient, it was scrapped.

Since everything required The Boss to provide signoff, delays of weeks or months were common – leading to massive cost overruns, and the ships that set sail were running out of food and water almost immediately. “There was no efficient administrative body like the English Navy Board to oversee the project and delegate authority and tasks.

Everything had to be done virtually from scratch – and all with Philip’s written approval, which meant lengthy delays.” These delays almost bankrupted one of the most wealthy global empires in history, crippled the ships equipment and sickened the men with disease that were forced to wait for months, gave the English plenty of time to prepare a welcoming committee, and led to the feeling of impending doom that the Spanish soldier felt.

When the brilliant fleet commander originally assigned to lead the Armada died, a new man was appointed. Predictably, as with many conservative organizations, a man was chosen that would not ruffle feathers – one that lacked the willingness to abandon a plan and rely on killer instinct. The new commander was competent, but “insisted on following Philip’s orders to the letter, even when they guaranteed defeat.”

So to repeat, here’s the elements of failure in this plan:

  • A schedule and budget drawn up completely on thin air. There was no way of cutting off costs or evaluating progress.
  • Fixed deliverables that were completely inflexible.
  • Management that was isolated from the daily realities of the project, but gave orders from on high. Initiative was not rewarded but punished.
  • No trust relationship between the team lead and the development team. No tasks were delegated and everything was top down.
  • Excessively long meetings and reams of paper and meaningless documentation. The intent appears to be to give a false sense of security, of control – and to hide from the overwhelming amount of details that needed to be tended to.
  • No incremental learning.
  • More than anything else, lack of buy-in from the project team, who appeared to have little voice in decision making and did not buy off on the team goals. Complete lack of confidence = failure.


The book continued:

The King of Spain never visited the armada or inspected the ships; he never took steps to learn firsthand what problems his commanders were facing. But he convinced himself that whatever problems did exist would be solved by God… When one of his councilors asked what the armada was to do if it ran into storms in the Channel, Philip said, “Since it is all for His cause, God will send us good weather.”

In short, he neglected what was most important in favor of what was least. He drowned himself in paperwork and minutiae, while the fleet rotted at the docks. This is not leadership, and it certainly wasn’t focused on the needs of the business – this is secretarial work, and the vacuum that it created was felt down to the lowest sailor in the fleet.

Now, one of the great things about Agile IMHO is the ability every two weeks to take a breath, celebrate what’s been accomplished, and recognize what we can do better in. I’m going to give you here a snapshot of my calendar for last week:


So, aside from meetings, I’ve got about 15 hours of usable, productive development time each week. Every week, that calendar starts out about 80% free – and as the week wears on meetings fill it up. The actual best, most productive time I had last week was from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday – between offsite meetings – where I was able to actually knock out a knotty problem with a form for a business person.

What fills the remainder of that time?


Emails. Endless, endless emails. I send out 60 a day on average, and receive many more than that.

Some of this can be excused as the life of a manager. There’s a certain amount of administrative work that comes with the territory – and some of those meetings from two weeks ago led directly to more work for my team, and great exposure for what we do. Yet, when I look at my calendar and what I choose to spend my time on, I cannot help but think of poor Philip, scrabbling away from dawn to dusk on meaningless paperwork.

I can’t prevent the organization I belong to from behaving in a very reactive way at times, and as a manager I am accountable to provide a response in a timely manner to most of the emails I receive – which means that I’m by and large a prisoner of the moment. Some of this cannot be changed. But some of these meetings, and some of these emails, can be neglected or cancelled.


I’m going to actively look through and make sure that when I accept a meeting request that I’ll send delegates, if at all possible – I’m hardly the only capable staff on my team – and be very careful in what I say YES to. Otherwise we end up living that passage in Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

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