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Project Lessons from the Great Escape

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Project Lessons from the Great Escape

(Stalag Luft III)



While you might think your project plan is perfect, would you bet your life on it? In World War II, a group of 220 captured airmen did just that -- they staked the lives of everyone in the camp on the success of a project to secretly build a series of tunnels out of a prison camp their captors thought was escape proof. The prisoners formally structured their work as a project, using the project organization techniques of the day.


This book analyzes their efforts using modern project management methods and the nine knowledge areas of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Learn from the successes and mistakes of a project where people really put their lives on the line.


Paperback: 276 pages

Publisher: Multi-Media Publications Inc.; 1st edition (July 1, 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1895186803

ISBN-13: 978-1895186802

Project lessons from the great escape


Most of us have seen the movie the “Great Escape” (1963). This movie has captivated its audience with its humour and action. It has also coloured our view of the actual event in 1944. No motorbikes were used, and nothing more mundane than a train ride was the best most escapees could hope for.


So how does this relate to the field of project management today? Many projects today are initiated with clear objectives, executive sponsorship, and a healthy budget but, still fail. Other projects have no budgets, many obstacles in their way, and succeed. This is the story of one of the perceived successes.



The Great Escape did not follow the traditional blueprint of a construction project. But it had all the hallmarks of a great project, e.g., complex timelines, limited resources, dire situation, and a hostile environment. It required a lot of planning and preparation, and team work.


The Great Escape from the prison camp Stalag Luft III is widely regarded as one of the most audacious and daring escape attempts of the 20th century. But as an event in March 1944, set in dire circumstances, what actually happened? How was the escape planned and executed as a project? How did it get around numerous obstacles in a habitat designed to be escape proof. How was the project tracked? In today’s world business people are grappling with numerous obstacles in planning and executing projects in a climate of rapid changes. What can be learned from this event and put into practice today?


So what do we know of the Great Escape. Everything in Stalag Luft III was set up to prevent escape. The project planning and preparation were hindered everyday by new obstacles. The environment was ripe for a project failure. Yet the escape committee (project team) was able to organize itself, and remove each obstacle it faced. Ideas and solutions were tested continuously and refined in a determined atmosphere where everything was thought possible. Throughout the project, no written project plan was ever produced yet planning was done extensively. The escape committee overcame continuous difficulties and ran the project in an agile fashion.


At one point with the discovery of a tunnel the project should have shutdown completely. But the forward planning had determined a contingency for this scenario and the project continued on.


PoWs thought 24 hours a day about escape but, for the escape to be effective wishful thinking was not enough. Everything had to be thought through and assessed, including what could go wrong. Unfortunately, as in most projects even with meticulous planning some things were overlooked, which severely hampered the breakout. Learning how these oversights happened will help you with your projects today.


Great Escape crew


Stalag Luft III watch tower


Stalag Luft III double fences

Great Escape Ferrets   Great Escape typical hut   Great Escape POW


This book is for people looking for inspiration for their projects, whether responsible for funding and approving new projects, to delivering these successfully. Its goal is to help a project team set up a project, even in dire circumstances, and become successful.


Photos: Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Academy Library's Special Collections

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