Project Management 101: Lessons From Genesis


The opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning,” evoke wonder and expectation, as they set the stage for action, for the beginning of all beginnings. What projects — big ones at work or something more modest at home — will you begin in this new year of 5775? And what can you learn from the Creation story about how to approach them?

God’s approach to creation is to begin by doing. Even in our planning-driven world, that style hasn’t gone out of fashion. Apple, Google, Mattel, Disney and Harley-Davidson are just a few of the great companies that began when someone started doing something in a garage. Sometimes you just want something and it doesn’t exist. So you decide to create it. Ferdinand Porsche said, “In the beginning I looked around and, not finding the automobile of my dreams, decided to build it myself.”

Most guides on starting a project focus on a planning process that precedes putting the shovel in the ground. For God, creation was “shovel ready.” It may be best to start after the planning has been completed, or you may begin while you are still planning. God’s deliberate action reminds you that at some point you have to take the plunge. God creates the cosmos by uttering words. But words are not the goal. God aims for a tangible product. There’s a time when you have to stop talking about a project and take the first step.

The Bible describes God’s Creation of the cosmos in six days. Why not a single instantaneous act? Human beings, says Genesis (1:27), are “created in the image of God.” You, too, are a creator, a builder of worlds. You, too, should approach your work in an orderly way. Instead of trying to complete your project in an instant, slow down; appreciate the wisdom of taking one step at a time. Ultimately the quality of your project should trump speedy completion. (Scholars attribute this version of the Creation story to the priestly source, which displays a special fondness for order. Later the Bible envisions Israel becoming a “kingdom of priests,” which implies that we’ll all undertake projects in an orderly manner.)

The story of Creation demonstrates the wisdom of splitting a big project into its components, each with its own beginning, with verification at each step that the work has been done properly.

There’s no end to what can go wrong when you try to rush through a big project. Some years back, Hershey, the chocolate company, hurried through the process of upgrading its computer systems. Although the details are complex, in essence, to save time, the company opted for switching on the entire new system at once rather than taking the time to phase in and test the new system module by module. The breakdown cost Hershey $150 million in lost sales. The fiasco has become something of a textbook case illustrating the dangers of trying to do too much in too little time.

Analysis of the Hershey case also revealed that leadership had been faulty. No one at the top level of the company took responsibility for overseeing the project. In the Creation story, God conceivably could have handed the work of Creation over to a band of angels, figures who appear often in the Bible. God functions as a hands-on creative leader, if there ever was one.

“And God saw that this was good.” God says something along these lines seven times as Creation unfolds. God celebrates success early and often. You should do the same.

Debbe Kennedy, author of “Achievement: Measuring Progress; Celebrating Success” put it this way:

“Success … is a moment in time that holds the knowledge and inspiration for leaders to move themselves and the organization to the next level. … Success knows the history of the journey, its mistakes, lessons, and accomplishments. Success is a mirror from which one can see the future possibilities with greater clarity. It boosts our confidence, fosters new levels of trust, helps us make sound decisions and can spread a message like wildfire in the hands of a determined leader.”

The final lesson to learn from the Creation story is this: Finish the project. God sticks with the project until it’s completed. Divine attention is presently focused on this project alone. If you spread yourself too thin, you’ll leave behind a pile of unfinished projects.

Dare to begin. Do so in an orderly, focused way, and celebrate success.

Paul Ohana, a management consultant, and David Arnow, a psychologist, are the authors of “Leadership in the Bible: A Practical Guide for Today” (iUniverse),