Wednesday, 10 November 2010 10:21

What Project Managers can Learn from Baseball

Written by Brenda Hallman

It may seem like a stretch to associate project management with baseball, especially when just giving it a passing thought.  However, a good baseball coach would likely share that if you are going to ‘play’ the game in a position that provides a nice correlation to what a project manager must carry out during the course of a project, it would be as a catcher.  This position requires a comprehensive understanding of the game's strategic elements and is crucial to the real-time action occurring during the course of a game.

Let’s take a look at a number of the key factors involved during the monitor and control period of a project and how those factors stack up against the catcher’s job. 

Monitor

A catcher has to handle a variety of pitchers, set defenses, and generally run the game during their team’s field possession.  Positioned behind home plate, the catcher can see the whole field and is in the best position to direct and lead the players on the field utilizing the necessary communication strategy that will work best for the given situation. The catcher must be aware of the pitchers’ skills and strengths and well as the batters’ strengths and weaknesses.  The catcher must wear protective gear to protect their face and throat from wild pitches, their knees from kneeling, and their chest and hands from 90 mile an hour throws.

As a project manager, it is necessary to continually watch the project components as the project unfolds; such as a catcher does during a game.  This is the renowned monitoring of a project, one of the primary responsibilities of a project manger.  You must have a good awareness of the skills, availability, and contributions of your ‘field’, your project team members, so that you are certain to best utilize these resources.  You must have constant attentiveness to the schedule and anything that may interfere with flow of the project.  It is vital to assure the project stays on track and to identify any problems without delay so they may be quickly mitigated.

Communicate

The communication strategies that you and your team utilize will differ based on the audience.  It is important to adjust the message and delivery so you can maximize the message and assure that it is the best format for reaching the intended recipients.  We would not expect to see Carlos Ruiz, catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, jumping up between each pitch to shout out his recommendation for the next pitch.  At the same time, his teammates would not want him to use hand-signals during the pre-game strategy meeting… and likely none of them would want him to send an e-mail message during the game with the hope his fellow team mates will get it before the next play progresses!

As a project manager, you must consider all methods of communication available, and which will be best suited for the situation.   A good communication plan that is well received can be one of the key contributors to success during a project.  Even during difficult projects, team members and stakeholders often report a more positive experience when they are kept properly informed.  And remember, properly informed does not mean over informed.

Risks

The project manager must be on top the forces that work against the project, the “opposing team”.  During the course of a game, the catcher may be required to block the path of an opponent running from third base to home or to nip a stolen base runner.  There is not time during the action to stop and think about the options; rather the catcher and his team have an understanding of how these risks will be dealt with if they arise. 

These forces can present themselves to a project manager in the way of technical issues, deadlines, resource commitments, or a variety of other factors that come up against every project.  Project managers must stay aware of potential risks so that if they do occur a plan is in place to deal with the situation and minimize any extra burden on the project. 

Issues

The responsibility to focus on the pitching, communication with the players, follow the quarks of the umpire, adjust for the batter, prevent stolen bases and runs scored seems overwhelming.  During an errant pitch, the catcher must react quickly to control the ball and prevent the ball from getting behind him.  This requires a keen alert level and any failure by the catcher could present dire consequences for his team.  

A project manager must also stay alert so to identify any arising issues.  They must assess the issue and assure that it is handled in a timely fashion while posing minimal impact to the project schedule and objectives.  They must maintain the same focus to assure that the project stays on track and tasks do not fall behind, particularly those that may impact the critical path.  As with the catcher, failure to ‘catch’ an issue could have dire consequences for the project.

Tools

If you have heard the expression ‘Tools of Ignorance’, it refers to the catcher’s vast equipment which is necessary considering the physical abuse endured by catchers. However, there is irony in this term as the catcher typically has the most thorough understanding of baseball tactics and strategies of any player on his team.  There is often a question of the level of wisdom attributed to a person who would take up this position; being that it is so demanding and places them such a vulnerable situation that they require much protective equipment. 

Many would agree the same holds true for a project manager; in fact project managers may overwhelmingly agree.  The skilled project manager must have the most comprehensive knowledge of project practices, methodologies, and processes.  They must make solid use of the tools available to minimize vulnerability. 

Not every baseball player could be a catcher, and not anyone can be a project manager.  It’s a unique blend of solid planning skills, the ability to monitor activities and adjust to changes to keep the ‘game’ on track while understanding all the players and possessing strong management skills. 

So go forth ye project manager, use your tools and skills for you know they serve to protect you and your project from harm.

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Brenda Hallman has over 15 years of project management experience in the IT and healthcare arenas.  Presently she works for the PMO at Main Line Health.  Ms. Hallman holds Bachelors of Science Degree in Computer Science and Mathematics, an MBA, a Masters Certification in Project Management, and she is PMP certified.

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