The Wonders of the Emperor Qin Project Portfolio

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
This article continues impressions from our recent trip to China, to honor PMRC, the Project Management Research Committee, and to celebrate their 20th Anniversary. And while we earlier mentioned the TerraCotta Warriors, a must-see adventure for any visitor to this part of China, there is much more to know about the founder of Xi’an, the heart of China’s governance for 2000 years.

We did our research before our visit, not wanting to be ignorant about this important part of China. Books in English about the area are not as common as those covering Beijing, Shanghai, and other parts of this fascinating nation. Among the books we read, we found a very useful book, Xi’an, Shaanxi and the Terracotta Army, by Mooney, Maudsley and Hatherly, published by Odyssey Books and Guides, 2009. We liked this book because of its great blend of geology, geography, art, history, politics, intrigue, and its description of the culture, tourist attractions, foods, and other facets unique to the area.

But the most interesting part was the story of Ying Zheng’s ascendance to his father’s throne as King Qin Shi Huangdi (Qin is pronounced Chin) in the year 246 BCE, and creation of a portfolio of projects that set the stage for unifying China as a nation. He began this at the age of 13—he would not yet even qualify for IPMA Young Crew. Over the next 25 years, he brought together (in battle) the Seven Warring States, and became China’s first Emperor.

Before proceeding, let’s clear up a bit about Emperor Qin’s name. Ling was his family name. Qin was the name of the state. Huang came from legends of three saintly sovereigns; Di came from legends of five saintly emperors. Shi? That means, the first. Such branding! Emperor Qin’s lasting impact was only partly based on his strong military power—his Dynasty was relatively short in duration—it expired quickly after he did. It is his wondrous portfolio of project results that has endured–such that still today, over 2000 years later, China benefits from his peoples’ achievements.

Emperor Qin’s Project Portfolio
The projects in Qin’s portfolio are numerous. We will highlight just a few:

  • Standard Weights, Measures and Common Currency
  • Road System and Public Works
  • Closing the Gaps in the Great Wall
  • The TerraCotta Warriors
  • Qin Ling Mausoleum

Any one of these projects would drain the resources of a lesser Project Executive. In combination, they transformed his Empire while, admittedly, taxing its resources. While we will not recreate the entire story of each achievement, we will relate the parts that have the most relevance for project and program management today. If you desire more information, the book mentioned above is a great reference. And of course, the web has a vast supply of information. But back to our story, his strategy for success: Military strength, public works, and food production. His approach: Rely on good people, and reward them well. At the same time, he was a strict and sometimes cruel ruler.

Weights, Measures and Currency
After uniting the Seven Warring States, improve cross-empire trade, Qin established common weights and measures, and a common currency. A unique aspect of the currency was a square hole in the center of each coin, for stacking on a stick, enabling counting and carrying. What better way to increase prosperity, than to ease and accelerate trade! The EU has benefited greatly from the common currency of the Euro, as the USA did when we united our states and currency.

Road System and Public Works
Just as Rome rose to power during this era due to rapid transportation throughout the empire, Qin did the same. With Shovel Ready projects, including new roads and other public works, such as construction of new palaces, Qin completed many results that benefited the economy. Not all the workers were willing, but with over 20 million people in the Empire, there were still many who were willing to perform the needed work. As part of the palace projects, the crafts and arts were also highlighted, improved, and rewarded.

Closing the Gaps in the Great Wall
This project involved two facets: One was to remove the walls between the former Warring States. An interesting strategic move, this both increased interaction, and reduced the possibility of rogue states separating. If the defensive walls were gone, it was more difficult to escape the Emperor’s wrath. The other part of the project was to fill the gaps in the wall that fortified each state against marauders from the North. This had been a continuing problem, and the walls did help fend off the strong horsemen who invaded regularly. We don’t know if the removed walls were close enough to be recycled for the new walls; if so, this was clever re-use.

The TerraCotta Warriors
The pits containing the TerraCotta Warriors were to accompany Qin in his afterlife. They were the result of a massive multi-decade project ending around 208 BCE. They were damaged several times, first by the rebels who removed weapons and precious items soon after Qin’s death, then later by treasure seekers. In 1974, a farmer, drilling for water, opened the site to the world. Today, you can see what a massive undertaking this construction and artistic design project was. As many as a hundred thousand people worked for decades on this project. Now this was a mega-project! But we never did find the project plans during our tour.

Pit one, which contained over 7000 fired-clay figures (each soldier is unique, but the horses are identical), is in  renovation, with hundreds of the figures reconstructed, and the remainder still in shards. Pit three, the smallest, appears to have the greatest number of undamaged or reconstructed figures. Note that 2000 years later, Project Executive Qin is still providing jobs for his people in this reconstruction project. Of course, if we hadn’t read our books, there are many of the fine points of the site we might have missed, even with our excellent tour guide.

Qin Ling Mausoleum
The TerraCotta site is a stellar attraction, but Emperor Qin’s top priority project was his Mausoleum, which he began when he ascended to the throne. What vision! Would you like that insight in your Project Executives? But while the site is visible and in the open, it is not-yet explored. There are a number of reasons, including concerns about degradation of items inside exposed to the air.

There may be a bit of superstition: It is said there are booby traps throughout the Mausoleum to protect the treasures within. Also rumored: There is a river of Mercury at the lowest level—evidenced by traces of Mercury in the ground of the site. Perhaps our great, great grandchildren will have a chance to explore the mysteries of this fascinating structure in several hundred years.

Managing the Portfolio
Emperor Qin had the best talent available, some loyal (and some not so loyal) leaders, and a sometimes eager workforce. He had a limited amount of time: less than 40 years from his ascendency to his natural death. His Empire did not last much longer. But his successes were significant. What made the difference between him, and other leaders? Perhaps a handful of actions, many of which every Project Executive and every Project Manager can adapt today.

  • He fed his people. He harnessed irrigation systems that increased the yield from the land, understanding that hungry people don’t work as hard as those with something in their belly. And, more food = stronger troops.
  • He balanced praise and punishment in proportion for the time. Admittedly, he was somewhat of an angry tyrant, but that was often the model in those days. We still see some like that today.
  • He had a vision, and made the decisions needed to assure that everything he did moved his Empire in that direction; sure, he had tough prioritization decisions, but he also had focus.
  • He established meritocracy in the military, with each person rewarded based on their performance, not on their clan, or social status. Recognizing and promoting PM Performance can probably be traced back to Qin.
  • He was able to build on the momentum and reforms of his predecessors. This is important in projects, and in organizations. There were hundreds of years of achievement by the people of his state, notably Shang Yang, and the people largely trusted leadership.
  • He relied on others, and when he could not, he found new others whom he could trust. While he may have micro-managed in the areas most important to him, that is nothing new today, is it?
  • He used a series of targeted projects to grow his Empire, first in battle, then in commerce and in the other parts of the portfolio we discuss here, and in other cases we have not covered.

Qin’s Epilogue
In our over 25 years of helping Project Executives to plan, build, prioritize, execute, monitor and evaluate their project portfolios, we have worked with many great Leaders. Few were as ruthless as Emperor Qin, and many have done similar service to their organizations. However, the wonders of Qin’s portfolio of projects benefited an entire nation, not just one organization.

And what is the outcome, over 2000 years later, of Ying Zheng’s career as Emperor Qin? Among other achievements, the forming of a nation. Advancing the economy. Progressing the arts, and highlighting the artists. Developing a transportation system; creating defensive barriers. Establishing common weights, measures, coinage, and something more significant, and not yet mentioned, establishing China’s common written language. All in all, a good career’s work!

These are key elements for the infrastructure of an entire society. And the list of contributions goes on: Xi’an in 2011, a bit East of the center of China, was the hub of culture and Dynasties for centuries. Xi’an was the beginning of the Silk Road, and the origin of the industry that now thrives worldwide. Qin probably did not invent noodles, but Xi’an is their source. Today, Xi’an’s attractions, including the TerraCotta Warriors and several great museums, draw tourists from around the world, and help the people, the economy, and us tourists, as we grow to respect the accomplishments and wonders of a master Portfolio Manager.

To true historians, who find errors in the above observations, we apologize, and request your corrections. Thank you!

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