Learning Project Management from Kautilya’s Arthashastra
By Radhakrishnan Pillai
Chanakya, who lived in third-century BC, was well known as a “kingmaker” and a leadership guru.
In a developing country like India, we observe that good leadership and governance have become a matter of prime importance, and project management practices are essential for growth. As we look toward the West for project management tools and techniques, we should also look back into our own history books to draw inspiration from our glorious past.
The glorious temples that stand today across many states, the magnificent forts built by various kings and many palaces, are examples of great projects executed in time.
In this article, we look back at the famous treatise, Kautilya’s Arthasashtra, written by the greatest political thinker of all times, Chanakya (aka Kautilya or Vishnugupta), and what we as project managers can learn from it.
Now, let us look at the following two sutras from the Arthashastra that are relevant to project managers.
A. What Is Management?
“The means of starting undertakings, the excellence of men and material, (suitable) apportionment of place and time, provision against failure (and) accomplishment of work – this is deliberation in its five aspects” (1.15.42)
This single sutra summarizes management with its following five aspects:
1. The means of starting undertakings (assignments/projects)
If you are not having a project in hand, make sure you start a new one. No one can be called a project manager if he or she does not have a project in hand. To start something is an essential quality of a good manager.
2. The excellence of men and materials
For any project, it is important to have two types of resources: men and machines (also materials). Optimum utilization of these resources is essential.
3. Deciding suitable place and time
No project can be completed without proper planning. So deciding the right time and place is important during the planning stages.
4. Provision against failure
What if my people leave me and go? What if the machine breaks down? Have a backup plan. To have Plan A with a Plan B is essential, says Chanakya.
5. Accomplishment of the work
Most important is results. We may do the best of planning, but finally results count. Any person is valued not by the promises he makes but the results he delivers.
Therefore, in short, understanding good management is important for good project management.
Every leader, manager, and executive has to handle multiple projects at any given point of time. This is unavoidable. He might have been appointed for a particular work; however, with time, he will naturally get more and more responsibilities.
Chanakya, advises us on:
B. How to Manage Multiple Projects
“And (they) should bring about the commencement of what is not done, the carrying out of what is commenced, the improvement of what is being carried out and the excellence of (the execution of) orders, in the case of works” (1.15.51)
He suggests the following four types of work that an executive should carry out:
1. Commencement of what is not done
There are many things that need to be done. Good managers are those who start work on their own rather than waiting for the bosses to tell them what to do. Each person has to become proactive.
2. Carrying out of what is commenced
A project manager said it well, “It is not important how many projects I started, but how many I have completed.”
3. Improvement of what is being carried out
One needs to ensure that the work started should end with a quality output. We should continuously strive for excellence. Excellence then becomes a habit.
4. Excellence in execution of orders
A manager like all other employees has limited time and resources. Thus, in order to do multiple tasking, he has to either delegate it to his team members or outsource the activities. Management is not about only doing work on your own, but getting work done from others.
(Mr. Radhakrishnan Pillai is the author of Corporate Chanakya and director of Chanakya Institute of Public leadership, University of Mumbai.)