Project Practitioners > Planning Gone Wrong: Operation Sea Lion

Planning Gone Wrong: Operation Sea Lion

By Kent McDonald

I listen to audio books while I am driving (as long as I am the only one in the car) and when I am working outside. The book I am listening to now, admittedly for the third time, is The Second World War by Winston Churchill. The narrator of the series is a dead ringer from Winston Churchill, so it brings an additional amount of reality to the account. The part I was listening to a couple of days ago made me think about the importance of collaboration in endeavors when there are multiple organizations involved. In this particular case, Churchill was talking about Operation Sea Lion, the planned German invasion of the United Kingdom in fall 1940.

Those of you with even a passing familiarity with WWII history are no doubt saying, "Hold on, Germany never invaded the United Kingdom." And you would be correct. The reasons why the Germans did not invade, at least as Churchill tells it, provides an excellent example of how lack of collaboration in planning and preparing for an endeavor, project, or invasion, can lead to failure.

In this case, Hitler ordered the German high command to prepare an invasion of the United Kingdom for September 1940. Invading the United Kingdom was a little more complicated than invading France – there was that little thing called the English Channel that Germany would have to cross in order to land troops and supplies on the island. Such an operation would require a coordinated, collaborative effort between the German army, navy, and air force. As Churchill described it, the service chiefs were unable to collaborate with each other because they were too busy vying for Hitler's favor, at the expense of their peers.

The conditions of success for the invasion were complete control of the air above the English Channel and the ability of the navy to establish a secure corridor in the English Channel between France and the Southern coast of England. The army, assuming that the other two services would be able to hold up their responsibility, planned to land upwards of a quarter of a million troops on the island in multiple locations. The navy in return indicated that they would be hard pressed to provide a safe corridor for multiple landings and could only protect one landing force, assuming that Germany had complete control of the air. The air force for its part spent a few weeks trying to destroy the Royal Air Force, and switched to bombing London right when they were on the cusp of victory. The reprieve on the airfields in southern England gave the Royal Air Force a chance to renew its strength and maintain fragile control of British airspace.

As the appointed time for the invasion grew closer, the Germany Chiefs of Staff continued their internal bickering and working at cross purposes. The Navy claimed that the army's plans were too ambitious, the army claimed it wasn't getting the proper support from the navy, and the air force continued to follow it's own approach to the war to the detriment of operations that would have been most beneficial to the overall objective. As a result of this failure to collaborate, Sea Lion was repeatedly postponed and finally given up on all together when Hitler decided he would throw the entire might of the German Army against the Soviet Union. After all, there was plenty of land upon which to drive tanks in that direction. Hitler apparently had forgotten the famous maxim "never get involved in a land war in Asia."

So what can we learn from this invasion that wasn't? A few key ideas come to mind:

  • When planning an effort that requires coordinated effort between many different parts of an organization, make sure everyone understands and buys into the objective of the venture and understand their role.
  • Reward the team as a whole for success instead of individuals. Having different definitions of success for individuals on the team results in dysfunctional behavior that can sacrifice the success of overall effort because individual members were trying to make themselves look good. This is one aspect of ensuring that the team id working in a collaborative manner. In the case of Sea Lion, Hitler himself encouraged this behavior because he pitted his generals against each other to win his favor because he did not want any one of them to gain too much power.
  • If you commit to your team members that you will perform certain tasks, stick to them. The leaders of the German air force had committed to winning air superiority, and were well on their way to doing just that when they abruptly changed their approach and started bombing London. Bad for London, good for the Royal Air Force, and eventually catastrophic for the German Air Force.
  • If it is obvious that the conditions for a successful project are not met, stop it before disaster strikes. This is the one thing that the Germans did right in this case, although you could argue that the "project" they took up instead was an even bigger disaster, but at the time it most likely looked like they had a fairly good chance of success.

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