Jamal’s Musings - Project Management in History: The Rusted Staple Story

Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization has been created in 1921 as a part of the Ministry of Defence. It remained small and consequently not very important part of the Wehrmacht until on January 1st, 1935 it was taken over by the soon to be Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.

In a fairly short period of time Canaris was able to reorganize his agency into one of the most efficient intelligence gathering organizations in the world.  Abwehr's activities spanned through the entire world including United States, Canada, Africa and Europe including England and Russia.

With the opening of the Eastern front Abwehr was tasked with establishing Abwehr schools on the occupied territories of Poland, Baltic states and Western parts of Soviet Union. These organizations were responsible for recruitment, training and deployment of commando-style agents whose primary purpose have been the reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines.

The aforementioned recruits were typically hand-picked by the Abwehr officers among millions of Soviet POWs who were captured in the first several months of the invasion. Some of them were convinced to enlist in the intelligence schools because they could no longer bear the horrible living conditions in the German POW camps, while others did this for ideological reasons, not the least of which was the hatred of Stalin's tyrannical regime in Russia.

After undergoing extensive training that included hand-to-hand combat, target practice, interrogation and intelligence gathering techniques, as well as radio operations to name a few, the graduates were  supplied with absolutely the best documentation provided by  Abwehr's Department 1-G responsible for false documents, photos, inks, passports and chemicals. It is important to note that German technology of producing counterfeit documents was probably the best in the world at the time. After all, they mastered the production of British pounds and US dollars that perplexed the most experienced experts on either side of the Atlantic.

Yet, despite first several months of successful infiltrations, the agents dropped behind the enemy lines started failing one after another; some were shot while resisting arrests, some were jailed and a certain percentage of them have been recruited to work as double agents, thus supplying the Abwehr headquarters with false information.

It took Germans several years to discover the root cause of their problem. It turned out that the documentation itself, as far as images, stamps and fonts, was perfect. The problem lay in a couple of simple staples that were used to fasten the pages of the document together! German industry was producing these staples from the stainless steel. Thus, they were very resistant to the rusting process, while Soviets manufactured their staples from the cheapest iron wires available, thus causing them to be covered in rust in a matter of weeks if not days!

Therefore, even the most uneducated Soviet recruits, who sometimes couldn't even read, were able to determine whether the man standing in front of them was a spy or a genuine soldier of the Red Army. The algorithm was pretty simple; if you can see rust stains on the pages of the document - it is a real deal, and if the staples are clear and shiny - you have an enemy agent standing in front of you!

Examined through a project management lens, this story highlights one of the most interesting and enigmatic areas of the project delivery - the project scope management, or to be even more accurate the scope definition domain. The product scope for the counterfeit documentation produced by the technical experts at Abwehr consisted of several features including but not limited to proper paper with correct watermarks, appropriate photos, correct fonts and inks but failed to incorporate a feature requiring the staples to be made from low-grade steel that would rust in a matter of days.

Just like in many other software development, IT, architecture or engineering endeavours, a simple omission of just one of these components led to the failure of the entire project.


This is an excerpt from my new book “Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects” that is being published by CRC Press The book should soon be available on Amazon.


About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @ www.thinktankconsulting.ca

Jamal is an author of two very popular books: Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management and Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects.