Project Management Institute

Enter the war room

Whether actual rooms
or dedicated Web sites,
today's decision-support
centers focus and improve
wide-ranging projects.




Few project management tools have saved the free world from ruin, but war rooms have done just that, many times. During the Battle of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill encamped himself in a fortified Spartan basement strewn with maps and charts beneath Whitehall.

Today, the same elements that allowed Britain to fight through its darkest hour are part of the new business reality. Corporate war rooms gather people and information in one location for concentrated problem-solving.

Lessons Learned

  • ■ Which industries and projects benefit most from control via a war room
  • ■ The physical set-up of both real and Web-based war rooms
  • ■ Why “culture” is as vital as physical design.

In its simplest form, a war room could be “everyone's favorite lunch site,” albeit with a few Gantt or Pert charts tacked to the walls, says Peter Fieger, an independent Victoria, B.C., Canada-based information technology (IT) consultant who has used war rooms to develop health care information systems.“The opposite extreme would be something like author Tom Clancy's Op Centner” he says, describing a room replete with glowing plasma screens and live two-way video feeds from multiple locations.

War rooms also can be entirely virtual. As projects spread across continents and time zones, many war rooms now exist as a Web site, but in that case, the challenge is, “How do I provide that same data to the project team that we used to have in hard copy form in this room to the people no matter where they are on a real-time basis?” says IBM Project Manager Jerry Perone, PMP.

Whatever form, today's project management war rooms owe their renewed popularity to the Y2K era, when companies knuckled down to avert potentially disastrous glitches in their information systems. War rooms proved their worth, as multiple teams coordinated their efforts, developing software patches under neigh impossible deadlines. Also, just like their military counterparts, the Y2K war rooms allowed project teams to “monitor regional power outages and other localized operations affected during the millennium rollover,” according to a CNN report.

As the clock ticked into the new century, war-room users realized their facilities could be adapted to any project where “failure is not an option,” says Martin Wartenberg, a senior consultant with the University of California, San Diego, Calif., USA, who has designed war rooms for both military and civilian applications. Wartenberg says companies in the IT and construction industries, in particular, rely on war rooms because so many of their projects are time-critical. However, the concept also has caught on “in companies that do product development on a regular basis and that live and die based on their ability to get product out on time,” he says.

War rooms work for other types of projects as well. Hewlett-Packard made use of several war rooms during its merger with Compaq. A ZDNet article describes one such room: “Building 20 at HP's headquarters is a locked fortress of integration information with timelines and merger buzzwords written on the wall. Inside, workers from both companies meet with advisers from Deloitte Consulting and other firms to plan every facet of the company's operations.”

The two companies appointed a special 1,800-person team to consummate the merger. The team was charged with countless tasks, some mundane such as ensuring employees received the proper identification badges. Other tasks were more strategic. A small group of planners, for example, created financial and product goals for the merged company three years into the future. Those tasks and others had an overall goal of reaping $2.5 billion in savings from the union.

War rooms certainly are up to such grandiose tasks. But whether devoted to large or small endeavors, war rooms can infuse productivity into projects. Researchers at the University of Michigan, USA, found that workers using war rooms were twice as productive as their counterparts working in traditional office arrangements. Indeed, the war rooms used in the Michigan study hardly resembled a traditional office, though they might sound familiar to anyone that's been involved in a project with tight deadlines. “Instead of toiling in separate cubicles, workers sit at wall-less workstations in one big, open room,” the research report notes. “The room is typically outfitted with central worktables, whiteboards and flip charts to facilitate group discussions.”

Truth be told, the military remains far ahead of most companies in the design and use of war rooms, Wartenberg says. “In the military,” he says, “they've gone to complete automation.”

By Design

Then again, military-styled war rooms probably are not suited to most civilian projects. “In industry, people are creating something new,” a new product, for instance, but “in the military it's more action and reaction and scenario analysis,” Wartenberg says. There are exceptions, of course. Retail giant Sears Roebuck and Co. sets up a war room to keep track of holiday sales, according to CNN.


Even with something as short cycle
as negotiating a contract, you need
to get everyone in the negotiating
team involved in the same space.



Managing and organizing data online
is more complex than simply pinning it on
a wall. And managing the virtual war room
may overshadow the project itself.


As a rule, a war room's overall design must match the scale of the project, Fieger says. Just about any project can benefit from a war room. “Even with something as short cycle as negotiating a contract, you need to get everyone in the negotiating team involved in the same space,” he says.

Similarly, the type of project and the nature of the group undertaking it will dictate the amount of technology needed. Wartenberg describes theater-like war rooms that can support many projects. Rear-projection television screens display the charts and status reports for each group temporarily occupying the room.

Television production centers have an analogous design and function, and they illustrate how a gadget-intensive war room can serve multiple parties, reaping savings in the process. Three New York public television stations shaved almost $10 million in capital costs, operating expenses and salaries when they combined their control-room operations, according to Current, a magazine devoted to public broadcasting.

But overreaching technology isn't always the best solution. “The more physically proximate people are to the war room, the less technology you need,” Fieger says. If work groups are concentrated in one location, any site will do. If they're located in two or three places, three separate war rooms linked by electronic whiteboards and video conferencing might suffice. When many parties are involved, a Web or intranet site might be the only practical way to bring everyone together.

High Touch

Whether real or virtual, war room design should follow function. It should clearly reveal the problem to be solved or the team's objective, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., USA, who looked at efficiency. Thus, in an actual war room, each group making up the larger project team might “own” a separate section of the wall to display charts conveying their team's progress, according to the researchers. An executive summary board “owned” by the project leader displays where the project stands.

To keep work flowing smoothly, the Johns Hopkins researchers also advise team members to identify themselves on their project boards and indicate where they stand on deadlines and goals. If the process works, a visitor should grasp the status of the project quickly upon entering the room.

Last, to make sure the displays are consistent and clear in conveying their intended information, the Johns Hopkins researchers recommend one person handle war room charts.

The other low-tech tool popular in war rooms is stick-on notes because they can be moved at will. “Technical people like to go up and attach yellow stickies on something,” Wartenberg says. “We cannot wean even young people away from that. There's a comfort level to being able to touch things on the wall and grab the pen from each other.”

Working Environment

That kind of human interaction is essential in do-or-die projects that demand total commitment. Make sure participants remain focused on the big picture in addition to the devilish details of their own work. For that reason, many firms hold project management meetings right in the space where a product is manufactured. “The idea is, ‘let's do it where things are real instead of just images on paper,’” Wartenberg says. “When you build a war room separate, and you only go to it periodically, you don't get the currency of taking that same information and putting it right in front of everyone,” he says.


War rooms are as much about culture as they are about design. Openness, sponsorship and individual responsibility each rank high on the list of basic components of any war room culture.

“The war room has to be the place where the team is welcome any time,” says Peter Fieger, a Victoria, B.C., Canada-based software consultant. Moreover, any conversations that take place in the war room should be open and all decisions must be communicated there.

In time-constrained projects, all involved need access to information and must know that project leaders are as committed as they are. “The war room has to provide access to your sponsorship and leadership group,” Fieger says. “That group must demonstrate that it's participating and concerned.”

Some specific work rules ensure success. Meeting times can be cut in half if everyone stands and follows the presenter around the room, according to war room consultant Martin Wartenberg. His “11th commandment” is “Thought shall escalate within four hours of a problem.” He explains, “When a pink slip shows up indicating a problem, you have four hours to solve it or go to your boss to get help.” That simple device has allowed his team to beat some tough schedules.

Similarly, Fieger says his war room stresses communications policies: On a recent project, when two teams discovered that they planned to duplicate each other's work, the war room proved its worth by upwards of “six figures.”

The University of Michigan researchers who studied war room efficiency call this work arrangement “radical co-location.” And it's been used by software and architectural firms as well as by newspapers in their city rooms. With desks placed close together, people overhear each other's conversations, Wartenberg says. They're aware instantly if someone's having a problem or if the design parameters must be changed. “You can't keep secrets in a war room,” he says.

Smart Cyberspace

As efficient as radical co-location seems, this type of war room isn't always practical. “The traditional war room was great when you had a lot of programmers working on one site, but things have changed over the last 10 to 15 years,” Fieger says.

“Projects are more geographically dispersed,” Perone says. “People are working out of their houses.” As a result, war rooms have become electronic, bringing new demands. Managing and organizing data online is more complex than simply pinning it on a wall. And managing the virtual war room may overshadow the project itself. “You can't become too much of a slave to it,” Perone says. “But at the same time you have to do a certain amount of it to keep the team up to speed.”

To simplify things, Perone recommends a standard template for online war rooms. That way, the experienced team members already know how to navigate and use the site. As a bonus, the Web site often becomes a project controls book for your project files. Next time a similar project comes along, all relevant historical data is cataloged neatly on the site.

Like its brick and mortar counterparts, virtual war rooms have an inordinate number of uses. Marine electronics manufacturer Sperry Marine used virtual war rooms to coordinate work on requests for proposals from clients as well as the projects themselves. Having all the information in one accessible place helped stave off the confusion that can result when different versions of documents are dispersed in different locations. It also allowed traveling employees to easily stay abreast of the project.

Virtual reality software coupled with ultra-high-speed Internet connections will lead inevitably to brick-and-mortar war rooms that resemble electronics-laden military command posts. The ever-growing need for speed and efficiency in a globally competitive environment will drive these changes: “Whether it's a physical or virtual place, you can't do what you need to do on a project without a war room,” Fieger says. PM

Mark Ingebretsen is a Des Moines, Iowa, USA-based freelance writer. A regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum, he is working on a book exploring why companies fail.

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