Ben Franklin: The First American Project Manager

Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents.  Around this time of year, we tend to remember him as one of America’s Founding Fathers. You know, the old curmudgeon that suffered from gout, kidney stones, and a propensity to use the word “whilst.” This of course fails to take into account his other distinctions that included being an:

Author, Diplomat, Economist, Father, Husband, Inventor, Musician, Political Theorist, Printer, Publisher, Scientist, and Statesman.

When he was not working on testing theories of physics, charting the currents of the Atlantic Ocean, or discovering electricity, he was forming the first public library, and the first fire department. This guy truly did it all! And, his daily schedule allowed for 7 hours of sleep and 3 hours for dinner, music, diversion or conversation. Talk about good work-life balance!

But, would Ben Franklin be a good project manager? This is a question I often contemplate whilst working the barbecue each July the 4th.

Although the roots of project management can be traced to the 1st century (who can forget the Roman engineer Vitruvius), it was not a recognized discipline during colonial days in the U.S. In fact, the modern age of project management did not start until almost 160 years after Franklin’s death.

Still, much of Franklin’s thinking would fit easily into modern approaches of project management. And, his basic components of success included traits such as cooperation, sound reasoning, perseverance and integrity – all of which are pillars in the practice of project management.

Based on Franklin’s writings, he would excel as a Project Manager in the following areas:

  • Preparation, scheduling and time management (“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail / You may delay, time will not / do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of / never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today.”) You need a plan to accomplish your goals. Then you must have a realistic plan of attack and a systematic approach for getting where you need to be. Finally, you must have the discipline to fulfill your commitments without fail.
  • Budget management and cost controls (“Beware of little Expenses: a small Leak will sink a great Ship / If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the Philosopher’s-Stone / The second Vice is Lying; the first is Running in Debt /  If you can’t pay for a thing, don’t buy it.”) He was a raised in a puritan household where thrift and expense restraint were core values. Project Managers should follow the same path.
  • Getting along with others (“Be civil to all; sociable to many; familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none / Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”) Franklin clearly saw the benefits of acting in a civilized manner and to look for common ground, compromise and alignment – as long as they fit into one’s overriding principles.
  • Open to change (“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”) Change is inevitable so the stronger we fight against it, the more time and energy it consumes. Instead we should focus our energy on making proactive changes rather than being swept up in the tides of change.
  • Using failure as a lesson (“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out / I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”) Fear of failure leaves us scared to try new things. Taking risks and giving yourself permission to make mistakes, will ultimately lead you to whatever your version of success may be.

Ultimately, besides his intelligence, curiosity and vision, his greatest strength was his character. Franklin worked to ingrain within his character the traits he thought were critical to success including: integrity, responsibility, commitment, humility, patience and courage. He was not always perfect but he monitored his actions with others to determine if he was successfully applying those traits. He sought ways to correct any tendencies to stray from his principles. He was committed to becoming a man of good character.

His 13 Virtues, which he developed at age 20, were one of his most prized legacies for which he wrote, “I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.

So, to everyone out there in the States, I wish you a happy and safe 4th of July holiday. Whilst you’re out tending to your barbeques, please remember this sage advice from Ben Franklin:

“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.”


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Project Management and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ben Franklin: The First American Project Manager

  1. Love the financial wisdom. Small leaks DO sink big ships! And, Ben Franklin is one of my favorite historical characters. Thanks for getting me in the mood to celebrate the fourth!

  2. Thanks! I was a history major whose emphasis was on Revolutionary War era US history. This is right up my alley. A great read!

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