Don’t start a project you can’t finish

Corinth Canal, Greece. A project that took 2,600 years to complete
Source: Phil Guerin 2023

Many projects go over budget and take longer than expected.  Some just fail or need to be rescued.  The Corinth Canal was a fascinating project. Read the story below and consider the lessons at the end.

The strategy and strategic abandonment

Periander, ruler of Corinth In the 7th century B.C., was losing many ships in the long, dangerous voyage around the Peloponnese peninsula. He started a project to dig a canal to connect Corinth to the Aegean Sea to provide a safer route. The canal was too big a job. Periander abandoned the project but did not abandon the problem.

A pivot to a new solution

Periander instead constructed a simpler and cheaper portage road, named the Diolkos. This meant ships could be towed from one side of the isthmus to the other.  It was innovative and very successful.  It was used for over 600 years. The project successfully pivoted to a new solution.

The uncompleted project

Julius Caesar and Emperor Caligula looked at restarting the canal project. Both were assassinated before work could start. Emperor Nero broke ground himself in 67 A.D. before leaving it to 6,000 Judean prisoners of war to do the rest of the work. They dug 700 metres of its 6.4 kilometre length before work was halted.  The Venetians considered restarting work after conquering the area in 1687 but it all looked a bit too hard. 

The successful project

Eventually the Greek government passed a law to build the canal in 1870. Their French canal builders then went bankrupt so work didn’t start until 1882. 

Greece completed the canal in 1893, about 2,600 years after it was started.  It shortened the journey from the Adriatic Sea to the port of Piraeus in Athens by 320 kilometres.  It is also a great tourist attraction.

Project Lessons

What can we learn from this ambitious project:

  • The power to order something is not the same as the power to achieve it
  • Identify a range of options before you commit to the first idea
  • A change of plans in the face of fresh evidence can lead to a better outcome
  • Scope and plan your project properly before you start
  • The right people and technology is often the key to success
  • The timing needs to be right

What lessons do you see in this story?

Phil Guerin, Consultant/Director, Hague Consulting Ltd. © Hague Consulting Ltd 2023