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Blog : Getting things done - a lesson from the Ottoman Empire


Getting things done - a lesson from the Ottoman Empire

Jane Sunley shares her top tips for getting things done - without losing your head

Wandering barefoot through the Blue Mosque one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul, I couldn’t help but be impressed by its huge capacity (it can accommodate 10,000 worshippers at a time); its cascading domes; its 20,000 blue tiles; its six minarets. It's an interesting place steeped in history and stories. For example, we're told that six minarets are very unusual - some say it was the Sultan showing off, others that the architect confused his request for gold (altin) with the Turkish word for six (alti).

So it's all the more incredible that the mosque was built by hand in 1609, in just seven years. My guide explained that all of the architects and builders in Istanbul said that, even if they worked day and night, such a feat would be impossible. And then Sultan Ahmed I (after whom the Blue Mosque is officially named) told them that if they didn't comply, they would be beheaded. This sounds like the ultimate 'stick' motivation and must certainly have focused the efforts of the poor unfortunate craftsmen of the time.

The Blue Mosque was, indeed, completed in exactly seven years and is considered to be the last example of classical Ottoman architecture. The craftsmen kept their heads; and what of the Sultan? He died in 1617 of typhus, just a year after the mosque was completed, aged just 27.

OK, enough of the travelogue. It is an interesting story though and one which really made me think. What was it that those craftsmen did to complete a seemingly impossible feat? The working methods, focus, leadership and project management they worked out for themselves under such tremendous pressure must have been extraordinary. Here are what would have been my ten top tips:

  1. Keep calm and avoid panicking - make sure you're clear about what needs to be done and how this will be measured - clarify what the required outcomes 'look' like.
  2. Secure support from the top so that the leadership (in this case the Sultan) are supporting what you are doing and can help you push through if there are barriers.
  3. Engage key stakeholders (such as finance and HR) to ensure you will have access to the resources required. Plan for additional resource if it's going to be needed.
  4. Put together a well constructed project plan, breaking the task into manageable chunks, conducting an analysis of the key risks.
  5. Build great teams and work on team dynamics to keep things running smoothly.
  6. Ensure people have the skills to do the job and clarify roles and responsibilities and accountability, always stimulating the necessary motivation.
  7. Manage performance and continuously develop and inspire your people.
  8. Communicate throughout - before, during and after and at all levels. Hold regular reviews and use a variety of communication methods.
  9. Learn from any errors, avoid wasting time and energy on blame and use the learning positively instead.
  10. Identify regular milestones to check progress and celebrate these advancements- loudly - with a final celebration at the end ('We kept our heads!')

This applies as much today as it would have done in the 17th century. We run our own business on these principles. When we go into an organisation to implement a talent toolbox online talent management system, we apply these rules to great effect.

What advice would you have given the craftsman of the Ottoman empire (apart from running non-stop as fast as their legs could carry them)?

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