IPMA International Project Management Association
1 September 2016 / 5:54

Against all odds – learning from great projectors: Werner von Siemens

With this article we continue a series of pioneers and projectors to learn from. You are all encouraged to write about great projectors out of your context so we may learn from them and improve our way of performing projects. “Projector” is a term introduced by Daniel Defoe in “An Essay upon Projects” (1697). It refers to people that “project” into the future and thus make them real. A true projector is “he who, having by fair and plain principles of sense, honesty, and ingenuity brought any contrivance to a suitable perfection, makes out what he pretends to, picks nobody’s pocket, puts his project in execution, and contents himself with the real produce as the profit of his invention.” History is full of those people, let´s make use of their stories by explaining the narrative behind.

Werner von Siemens  was a German inventor, industrialist and founder of the renowned company named “Siemens”, nowadays one of the largest electro-technical firms in the world. The company was first producing telegraphs invented by Werner von Siemens, a telegraph that used a needle to point to the right letter, instead of using Morse code. In 1848, Siemens built the first long-distance telegraph line between Frankfurt and Berlin. Later other long-distance lines were completed in Europe and Russia. New offices were established in England and Russia, run by brothers of Werner von Siemens. The family was also involved in one of the most prestigious projects of the 19th Century, the establishment of a long-distance telegraph line between Calcutta and London. The project was a risky endeavor, extending from Lowestoft to Emden in Prussia, then to Berlin to Thorn on the Vistula river in West Prussia, into Russia to reach Warsaw, Zhitomir, Odessa, Kertch, Suchum, Tiflis, Erevan, then to Djulfa in Persia through Tabreez to Teheran, then to Bushire on the Gulf, underwater to Karachi, through India to Calcutta on the Gulf of Bengal. The commitment of the Siemens family to the Indo was total; Walter Siemens, on his way home from Persia in 1868, and Otto Siemens, supervising the construction works in 1871, both died of illness in the South Caucasus and are buried at Tiflis in Georgia. Siemens took also care for 20% of the investment amounting to 450.000 £. Against all odds and difficulties, the line was finished 1870 in time and in budget, operating successfully for nearly 30 years. A message arrived from London to Calcutta in only 28 minutes instead of 30 days.

Based on the experiences gained through the spectacular long-distance telegraph lines, Siemens engaged in the laying of a transatlantic cable in 1874/75. There were already a few attempts to lay a transatlantic cable, however those attempts failed due to technical reasons or the difficult context they were performed in. A special cable-laying steamship was built. It started to lay the first sections successfully, but when starting to establish the main cable, a major incident happened: The cable had broken – so deep down the entire Mont Blanc could have been sunk in the sea at this point. Werner von Siemens expressed the incident as follows: “When I arrived early this morning on my Irish cart in the usual ghastly rain from my hotel 16 English miles away, I was met by long faces. There was a defect in the cable, which the ship was trying to recover.” However, Siemens managed to resolve the issue. It took seven hours for the grapnel which was lowered to search for the cable to reach the sea bed. A cable had never been recovered from such a depth before. Within two days the lost cable was picked up and the laying could continue. Werner von Siemens wrote to Berlin: “The recovery of the cable from such a great depth (2,580 fathoms) and its repair all within a day is something new in this field and will establish our reputation. It was not only exceedingly instructive for us, but in point of fact led for the first time to the completely clear apprehension and mastery of cable laying in deep water.” (Source: Siemens)

I could go on and on with inventions, project experiences and great achievements, but would like to draw your attention to something else. Already in 1872, ten years before the state introduced retirement funds and survivors´ pensions, Werner von Siemens offered his employees a pension fund including pensions for employees, widows and orphans. The aim was to foster the welfare of employees, to retain well-qualified workers over the long term and set a good example for the society. This is remarkable, as it shows the philosophy of a great entrepreneur, not to focus on profit only but also on social welfare and a sustainable development. Maybe this is the reason why the company is still highly successful, 170 years since its foundation.

What do we learn from Werner von Siemens? He demonstrates perfectly that it is not enough to be a great inventor and engineer. In addition, project management and organisational skills are needed to get things done. The long-distance telegraph line between London and Calcutta was an outstanding achievement and encouragement to continue on that route. Against all odds a successful completion was reached in time, in budget and to specification. Werner von Siemens is a real pioneer of the project business.  He was never acting alone, but engaged his whole family, friends and partners to reach ambitious goals. This was based on the understanding, that it is impossible to be successful in projects on your own. It was also highlighted that Werner von Siemens took care of his employees and the related families by establishing pension funds and paying them fair wages. The aim was to maintain a good relationship, to keep them in the company and to ensure continuous learning and growth. I would love to see more of those pioneers nowadays …

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.