A few years ago, I returned to Rome to visit the Sistine Chapel for the first time since its restoration. Even in our own century, with all of the advances of modern technology, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel was a monumental task. Looking at the elegance and the beauty of Michelangelo’s restored figures, I couldn’t help but wonder about the strategizing, planning, and execution that must have gone into the original decoration of the chapel’s 40-meter-long by 13-meter-wide ceilings – all accomplished on scaffolding suspended 14 meters above the ground. It took Michelangelo and his team — yes he had a team — 4 years to complete one of the most important masterpieces of western art: And all of this beauty was created with the technology available in the early 16th century!
As I began reading the history of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, 4 lessons jumped out at me that are as relevant to implementing a successful project today as they were to painting the Sistine Chapel 512 years ago:
1. Good communication and a shared vision are keys to success
Pope Julius II enlisted Michelangelo to paint the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel. The pope’s vision was to decorate the ceilings with images of the 12 apostles surrounded by geometric ornamentation. Michelangelo realized that the design was too simplistic for the size of the space, so he instead proposed to paint scenes from the Old Testament using architectural elements to organize the composition. He then discussed and refined his plan with the pope and his theologians until he was able to obtain the consensus he needed to implement his vision.
Even the great Michelangelo had to listen, negotiate and compromise in order to see his dream realized. No matter who your customers are, whether internal stakeholders or end customers, you need to create a shared vision and a shared sense of purpose around the project you are executing if you want to succeed.
In order to get an organization to rally around a project, you need to make sure you have clarity around the expectations of the different stakeholders. You need to define and implement the metrics that allow you to track whether you are meeting or failing against your stakeholders’ expectations. You must be able to identify supporters and detractors, understand what motivates each, and find a way to engage them in the success of the project.
Creating open communication and trust with your stakeholders also helps ensure you have the credibility and support needed to overcome project issues when they occur. In 1509 work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was set back when a wrong plaster mixture combined with mold and damp weather prevented the fresco plaster from curing. Michelangelo turned to his main customer and sponsor, Pope Julius, for help. Pope Julius gave Michelangelo air cover with his detractors as well as the funding he needed to bring in the experts that were able to help him resolve the issue and put the project back on track.
2. Have a long-term vision but plan with realistic short-term deliverables in mind
By the time the Sistine Chapel was complete, Michelangelo had painted 343 figures over 464 square meters of ceiling. Michelangelo needed to have a very clear long-term plan in mind to accomplish this monumental task. The ceilings of the Sistine Chapel are curved, so for the figures to look correct when seen from 14 meters below, Michelangelo had to plan for some very difficult techniques in perspective. He executed numerous sketches and studies, with the perspective of each figure adapted to the curvature of the particular segment of ceiling on which it would be painted. Michelangelo’s works were painted onto quick-drying plaster, so he needed to have a clear working plan in mind in order to paint the day’s figures before the plaster dried. He accomplished this by breaking the work on the ceiling down into tasks that could be completed in a day’s worth of work.
Without knowing it, Michelangelo even used some early “Agile Planning” techniques in his work. He produced the sketches for the segments of ceiling he planned to work on next only as he needed them. That is to say, he would complete the paintings on one part of the ceiling, and only then begin the detailed sketches for the next segment of his design.
Even with modern technology, painting the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel would be a daunting undertaking. But there are some very simple lessons we can learn from Michelangelo that carry through to the implementation of any modern project. Make sure you have clarity around the “big picture” you are trying to accomplish. In parallel, break down your project into daily activities and assign task owners and deadlines to each task. Make sure each of the tasks is designed to bring you one step closer to your end goal. Put time and effort into planning—capture the project requirements and try to plan for the difficulties you might encounter. Ensure that the “perspective” is right by validating what you are building with the people you are building it for.
3. If you just stick to the original plan without adapting, you will probably fail
The first scene Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was the “Noah Fresco” that depicts images of the great flood from the Old Testament. Once Michelangelo removed the scaffolding and viewed the paintings from below, he realized the figures were too small. He used this important lesson in perspective and adapted his painting style to create much larger figures in all his subsequent frescoes.
Having a long-term vision of what you want to accomplish is fundamental to successful project execution. However, projects do not take place in a vacuum. Market dynamics continue to evolve, so you need to be ready to adapt and refocus when needed. Reassess deliverables periodically and ensure that they are still aligned to evolving business scenarios in order to make sure that your project remains relevant.
As a project manager, one of the most powerful best practices you can implement in a project is to make it a point to engage your customers and end users throughout the project lifecycle. Do not stop at asking your customers and end users what their needs are during the requirements gathering phase and then assume you know what you need to build. Keep showing your stakeholders what you are building as you are building it, then adapt or enhance the design according to their feedback.
4. Engage the right people to help you
Because Michelangelo was a sculptor, and the Sistine Chapel was his first painting assignment, he brought in a team of trusted artist friends from his Florence workshop to help him get started. Michelangelo’s genius was that he was able to learn from his painter friends and elaborate on their experience to create something never seen before. He applied multidimensional techniques he learned as a sculptor to create the first masterpiece that used perspective and 3D to draw the viewer into the world he had created. He was so successful at this that other famous painters of the time such as Bramante and Raphael would sneak into the Sistine Chapel at night to look at his work and later incorporate these 3D techniques into their own work.
Michelangelo also had a team of assistants who did everything from mixing his paints to preparing the plaster needed for painting. Because the plaster was fast drying and had to be painted on within a strict timeframe, his assistants planned a daily schedule based on the drawings Michelangelo wanted to accomplish that day and prepared the needed materials accordingly. In addition to his commission, Michelangelo was given a budget for painting the Sistine Chapel. Undoubtedly the daily planning process was also designed to maximize the available resources and minimize waste—specifically paint colors, which were a very expensive commodity at the time.
Without a doubt, Michelangelo deserves the lion’s share of the credit for envisioning and executing the magnificent paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But even Michelangelo could not have realized his vision without a group of multitalented assistants and peers to help him. As a project manager, remember to bring in expert resources to help you execute your vision. By engaging experts involved in the operational activities of your business, you can better align your project to evolving business needs and maximize your chances of delivering a project that exceeds your customers’ (and your competitions’) expectations.
Although he had a reputation as a lone wolf and a difficult taskmaster, even Michelangelo would not have been able to accomplish his vision for the Sistine Chapel by simply climbing onto the scaffolding each day and painting. He put considerable time and effort into cultivating his stakeholders, planning out his vision, and delegating tasks to his team in order to accomplish his masterpiece. Five hundred years ago there was no such thing as a Project Management Certification or project implementation best practices that one could reference. And yet, as modern project managers there are valuable lessons that we can learn from Michelangelo’s style of project management that can help us envision and successfully build our own project masterpieces today.
If you would like more information on project implementation best practices please feel free to reach out to us at and we will be glad to provide additional support.
Interesting Footnote: One of ServiceMax’s longest-serving customers, CARRIER, installed the ventilation system that protects the works of art in the Sistine Chapel in October 2014.