Three Lessons Project Management Can Learn from American Football

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The American Football season is now underway and for the next few months I will spend my Sunday evenings watching what I consider to be the best team sport in the world.

I started watching Gridiron in the early 80s and started to play the game in 1987. This was the around the same time that I started working in project management. It took me a while to learn the rules of both and as I became a more experienced player of the game it seemed to me that the two had a lot in common. I’ve never retreated from that view.

In fact, with every season I believe more strongly that American Football has lessons that Project Management can learn.

  • The more money spent on failing and failed projects, the more you should question how many of these projects should have even gotten off the drawing board
  • The more effort that organisations put into training and certification of project professionals, the more you should question the limited improvement in their ability to delivery projects successfully
  • The greater the pressure on project managers and their teams, the lesser their ability to cope with an ever more complex environment in which they try to work.

The key to me is not about throwing good money after bad, about certification and about coping with complexity. The key is really simple. If project management is to up its game it must learn three things from American Football.

Preparation and Planning

The first thing that project management must learn is focus on preparation and planning. Each year we would spend the whole winter preparing for the season to come. We would practice play after play after play, for all sorts of scenarios. And that was just the offensive unit. The defensive team would do the same in an effort to deal with anything that a future opponent might throw at them. Then we’d get together and work on special teams plays. Months of practising for a season that lasted just 12 weeks.

Compare this to a typical project, where it is unusual to have so much as a plan B. All too often projects get permission to proceed without a fully thought out plan, let alone contingency plans for the most likely risks that it may face. This leaves both the project and the team woefully unprepared for what come next.

Teamwork and Communication

The second thing that project management must learn is the importance of teamwork and communications. It is pretty much impossible for a football team to win a game, let alone a championship, without great teamwork. Every member of every team knows what their role is for each and every play that the team has in its playbook. However, the decision as to which play to run comes during the game and depends on the circumstances the team faces. Once a play is called the team works together to achieve its joint objective. Key players are protected by the others while they carry out their assignments, because it is only by working together as a single unit that the team can move forward. After every play the team comes together, reviews their performance and makes adjustments.

Compare this to the typical project, where silo working is not uncommon, where team members may work in complete isolation from each other and where regular updates are often overlooked, unplanned or poorly attended.

Establishing Momentum Early On

The third thing that project management can learn from American Football is the importance of establishing momentum early on. The team that scores first achieves an advantage that often translates into a winning margin. A yard here, a yard there: a first down, then another one. Territory gained is fought over and defended in order to provide good field position the next time around. Everyone on the football team knows the importance of establishing and then maintaining an early lead. With momentum comes confidence and with confidence comes strength, the strength to push on, to hold on, to carry on.

The team that concedes has to play catch-up in order to stay in the game. That makes it vital to achieve even small victories in order to attain larger ones, whether attacking or defending. The team that is losing may be able to turn things around but the longer they stay behind and the further that they fall behind, the harder it is to maintain the belief that they will succeed. As the minutes tick by and the game gets into its final stages, the winning team may achieve a margin that cannot be overcome. They can relax and ease up knowing that victory may be theirs before the final whistle is even blown.

Compare this to projects where much of the early work is lost in what is often referred to the as the “fuzzy front end”. In some cases projects often only start to move at pace later on as everyone realises that they have little time left and much to do. By then it is often too late; time has been squandered that cannot be recovered. Opportunities to achieve quick wins have been lost. With little time left on the clock some projects start:

  • de-scoping not just individual features, but often whole elements of the project
  • deferring anything that is not essential for some later phase, a phase that may never happen and, as a result
  • destroying the very benefits case on which the project was based.

Seldom does anyone decide to cancel the project at this stage; too much has been invested for anyone to do the decent thing and pull the plug, both emotionally and financially. You’ve seen this happen, I’m pretty sure of it.

Conclusion

Planning and preparation. Good teamworking and communications. Creating momentum and confidence. Three things can make the difference between winning and losing, whether playing football or managing projects. It’s time for project management as a profession to recognise this.