Author: Kerry Wills

Scoring Project Goals – A Soccer Metaphor

Have you ever seen a group of children play soccer? The ball gets kicked into a corner and every child on the field runs after it. Then the ball gets kicked into another corner and they all chase it there as well. It is exhausting to watch and the game usually lasts a long time, with no/few goals being scored.

This metaphor can easily be extended to poorly run projects. All of the team members wind up ‘chasing the ball’ wherever it goes rather than spreading the field and playing as a team. Often the same result occurs as the children’s game; a long time goes by without many goals being made.

Soccer Match          

          1.   Playing with Children

A lot can be learned about running projects from watching children play soccer. It seems that project teams are always ‘chasing down’ the most recent problem like chasing down a soccer ball. That is, they are always running to the next place that the ball is kicked. This problem usually involves the entire team or a large part of it to solve. This means that team members are not working on other aspects of the project, resulting in those areas having problems later. These new problems then require everyone working on them to solve. It seems to be a perpetual loop.

The result of this loop is that the team is always behind the ball chasing it wherever it gets kicked. This is usually accompanied by lots of yelling from the sidelines by the coach (Project Manager). The next sections will discuss approaches for scoring project goals.

          2.   Get In Front of the Ball

The best soccer players (and project team members) are those who have learned how to ‘run without the ball’. These players have the ability to anticipate where the ball will go and be there by the time it gets there. By not being behind the ball, they can focus on preparation for when the ball gets to them and they have a better idea of what to do with it when it gets there.

As this relates to projects, having a plan and being able to anticipate where the project will go is critical to the success of the project. If a project is always chasing down issues, then they are being controlled by the issues and wherever it takes them. Staying in front of the issues allows them to be manageable and allows for preparation as they arise.

The plan must be realistic, however. Having team members ready at a place in the field where the ball will not go makes them unproductive. The plan must also be flexible enough to react to deviations in the track of the ball.

          3.   Teamwork

One of the biggest keys to getting in front of the ball is to trust in the other team members. This allows the players on the team to spread themselves out across the field and focus on their respective roles. The offensive players in the front need to trust that the players behind them will get them the ball and the goalie needs to trust that the defensive players will do their best to keep the ball away from the goal.

Productive teams also need to trust in each other’s abilities. Designers need to trust that the Requirements were captured properly. Developers need to trust that the Design was done properly. Having this trust allows the team members to focus on their aspect of the project and not have to question all of the other information.

Another key to teamwork is to know where the other team members are located across the field. This allows whoever has the ball to get it to the appropriate person when they are ready to receive it. This results in proper handoffs between team members.

          4.   Coaching

The coach is critical to the success of the team. Their job is to keep the team focused and motivated to make goals. They see the entire field and can provide valuable insight to the players who are focused on their part of the game. This is why the coach needs to be observant and engaged in what is going on during the game.

The coach needs to have the respect of the team members. Yelling from the sidelines is not a very effective technique for motivating team members. Eventually, they stop listening to the coach and do things however they want to do them.

Another effective technique of the coach is the half-time talk. This is when the coach motivates the team during the middle of the game. If the game is going well, they praise the team but remind them that the game is not over yet. If the game is not going well, they motivate the players and formulate a new plan. Project Managers shouldn’t wait until ‘half-time’ but should always be looking to motivate their team members. 

          5.   Proper Training

Proper training also results in a higher probability of success. This is because the team members have practiced their skills and are not learning to pass the ball for the first time during a critical game.

Conclusion

Projects can be compared to soccer games in how they are run. Team members need to spread the field, run without the ball, trust in each other, practice their skills and have a good coach. When all goes well, the team can make their goals. I will leave it up to you, the PM, to determine if they can pull their shirts over their heads and run around the field once this happens.

Don’t forget to leave you comments below.


Kerry Wills has worked as a Consultant and a Project Manager for Fortune 500 companies on multi-million dollar technology projects since 1995. During that time, he has gained experience in several capacities; as a Program Manager, Project Manager, Architect, Developer, Business Analyst, and Tester. Having worked in each of these areas gives Kerry a deep understanding of all facets of an Information Technology project. Kerry has planned and executed several large projects as well as remediated several troubled projects.

Kerry is a member of Mensa and has a unique perspective on project work, resulting in ten patents, published work in project management journals and books, and speaking engagements at over twenty Project Management conferences and corporations around the world. Kerry is a passionate speaker who has a reputation for delivering entertaining presentations combined with vivid examples from his experiences. 



Project Management Kung Fu Theater

June29thGrowing up in New York during the 1980s, I enjoyed watching what was called “The Sunday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater” on television. This meant four hours straight of Kung Fu movies, dueling techniques, avenging deaths, dubbed voice-overs, and wonderful noises for punches and kicks. There was also the additional two hours after the movies ended when my brother and I would re-enact the movies on each other (and destroy our house in the process). This article ponders these similarities of these movies to project management to see if it can help Project Managers attain their “black belt” in managing projects.

For those people reading this article who are not familiar with this genre of movies, I will give a brief overview. Each movie was about two hours long and they all had very distinct characteristics:

Each had a similar story in that a martial arts student has some wrong done to them (e.g. the killing of a master/brother/father, ransacking of the town/temple by thugs, etc.), then they go away to the mountains to train in some particular technique and would come back and avenge the wrong done to them.

The techniques that each student practiced made them super-human by having the ability to fly, smash walls with their fists, take arrows without being hurt, climb trees without using their hands, etc. (Do you begin to see the similarities with Project Managers yet?).

The styles of Kung Fu practiced were unique in that they mirrored specific movements and strengths of different animals (e.g. Tiger, Dragon, and Snake) and  elements (e.g. Water, Fire, and Earth).

They were all filmed in Chinese and then translated with English voice-overs. This resulted in the actors’ lips moving (in Chinese) but the words being said in English did not match.

The Different Styles

A common occurrence in the Kung Fu movies was when the combatants would yell out the next ‘style’ that they were going to use against one another during a fight sequence. These were usually based on animals (e.g. Tiger, Crane, Dragon, and Monkey) and had distinct movements to them. While (most) Project Managers don’t shout out their styles or techniques during action in the project, I have noticed that some of the Project Management styles mirror the styles used by the Kung Fu warriors. That is, there are several distinct ways that PMs manage their projects and resources:

       Dragon Style

The Dragon style is an aggressive style and is used by a PM who manages by shouting out orders (like breathing out fire). They often use the “just do it and don’t complain” approach. Fear may be used as a motivator for the Dragon because they believe that people should obey them because of their power or title. I rarely see the Dragon ‘on the floor’ interacting with the team members but rather in the tower looking down and ready to attack. My experience is that Dragons may get the work done in the short term, but they rarely have the motivation or dedication of their team members if this style is over-used. People start resenting the approach and see it as a lack of support and will not be as motivated or productive after some time.

       Crane Style

The Crane style requires Project Managers to stick out their necks. Cranes are risk takers who say that anything is possible (often before considering any consequences). These people tend to be more academic and enjoy the challenge of doing something that has not been done before (even if that is not what the project is asking for). I get nervous around Cranes because their ability to deliver on time is often diminished by their unrealistic expectations of what they want to deliver. However, there is value in being a Crane on projects where new thinking is required.

       Snake Style

The Snake style of Project Management involves being sneaky around the way in which the project is managed. These are the Project Managers who have major issues but always report their status upwards as green. They sneak their way around dates or deliverables by talking their way out of them. These people are very good talkers so they tend to look good in front of Senior Management. I have seen the Snakes have trouble because by the time they admit real problems the problems are usually enormous. They also lose credibility with their team members if the team does not feel that their problems are being heard or addressed.

       Monkey Style

The Monkey style entails being everyone’s friend. These are the social managers who make it a point to have a relationship which each team member. This results in great camaraderie on the team but it also has its faults. For one, the work may not get done because the PM doesn’t want to ruin any friendships by being too tough. There is another level to this style – the “Drunken monkey”, which speaks for itself and usually causes the water cooler talk the following day and results in what may be known as a CLM (Career Limiting Move). Monkeys are fun to be around but may not have the respect from the team when it comes to crunch time.

       Cat Style

The Cat is cautious and reluctant to act quickly. They like knowing all the available (and sometimes unavailable) information before making a decision. They take their time in analyzing all of the information. This style can work well for PMs provided that they are careful to make decisions in a timely manner.

When to Use Each Style

There were always two types of Kung Fu Masters – those that were experts in one specific style or technique and those who had a fundamental understanding of several techniques. I think the Project Management master must be an expert in all techniques and know when to use them. All of these styles can work, if used in the appropriate way. Some techniques work better in certain situations than others. The PM must be nimble enough to change their style based on the project team and environment.

Practice

Like Kung Fu students, Project Managers must practice their skills in order to attain mastery. Understanding the technical aspects of project management (e.g., issues logs, project plans) will not alone make a good project manager. It is the experience that a PM attains over many years of working on projects that lets them know what works and what doesn’t work. None of the movies I watched on those Sunday afternoons ever showed a student just reading a book of Kung Fu and then becoming an expert. They all took a few punches before learning how to block. It is the taking of these punches and kicks that make a Project Manager experienced to know when to punch, when to block and when to duck! It is the difficult project that instructs the most. You can’t learn martial arts very well by sparring with a wooden dummy – you want it to strike back at you.

Discipline

One of the most memorable movies was the one where the students had to perform several difficult activities within different chambers to attain mastery. They could only move on to the next chamber once the current one was completed. One of these activities required students to hold a scalding hot cauldron filled with boiling water between their forearms for a period of time to test their discipline and skill. Another activity required holding plates of water on their body as they stood in a particular position and not moving for hours. While I would hope that PMI doesn’t require any of these activities to get the PMP certification, the metaphor can be used here as well. Because projects usually involve a lot of moving and inter-related parts, Project Managers need a lot of discipline to be successful. There are several frameworks and methodologies for managing projects but it is the PM who must apply the appropriate rigor to using these. It is very easy to skip steps in a process or push things off until later. These are often shortsighted decisions that result in pain later (maybe not as much as the burning cauldron, but it does sometimes feels that way). For example, not having the discipline to plan for all activities on a project will result in rework or missed steps later.

Unexpected Punches

In Kung Fu Theater, no matter how good the master was they always took a few beatings during the big fights before they would make the comeback and eventually win the battle. Having discipline and practice helps to refine the Project Manager’s skills, but there are always those unexpected punches and kicks that they must absorb along the way to success. This is where your training will come in handy. Hopefully, you have learned how to take the punches and keep standing. It doesn’t make any sense just to train to avoid punches since it is inevitable that a few will be landed on you. Therefore, you should train yourself to take them and keep moving. PMs call this technique risk management.

Breaking Walls

Another favorite episode of mine features a Kung Fu master who had the ability to punch through brick walls. Today’s Kung Fu students use wooden boards. The technique for breaking anything is to strike through it and not at it. A martial arts student myself, I was taught to look six inches beyond the target and aim for that point. This metaphor can be extended to project management. The PM must ‘look beyond’ the problems of the day to be alert of what is to come rather than just striking at each problem. Once they make the plan, they should execute it with all of their focus, striking through the little problems that may stand between them and a successful project outcome. I have found in my experience that a lot of Managers tend to spend their days “putting out the fires” and not looking beyond them at the end goal. This is short-sighted and usually results in more fires and the endless cycle of firefighting.

Project Management Voice-Overs

For anyone who watched these moves, they know that the most entertaining part of Kung Fu Theater was the voice-overs. Since all of these movies were made in Hong Kong or China, they were in native Chinese. When shown in the U.S., English was dubbed over the dialogue. The result was lips moving in Chinese but words being played in English.

Oftentimes, a team member will report a major problem on the team. When this gets ‘dubbed’ for Management, there is usually a voice-over that changes the meaning of what the team member said. Here are some examples:

Native Statement

Voice-Over Statement

The work is half done

The work is complete for all intents

We pray that we can meet the date

We have a plan

The project is going well

The project is going great

The project is having problems

The project is going great

The project is really having problems

The project is going great

The project is now in real trouble

The project has some risks, but will come in on time

The project will never succeed

We need more time than usual to complete it

The team is posting their resumes on Monster.com

We have some potential show stoppers

It is very important to state information accurately so that expectations can be managed. I have found that it is better to state problems early (with proposed solutions) than to try to put off the information until later. Usually what happens is that the problem then snowballs into something gigantic and then no one understands how it got to be so big and unmanageable.

Conclusion

Project Managers resemble the Kung Fu masters of those golden days of Sunday afternoon television. They are super-human warriors who need to understand the different styles of Project Management and when it is appropriate to use each one. They need to practice their skills and focus on proper discipline. Even so, there will always be a kick or two that gets through and they need to have the stamina to absorb it. They also need to make sure that when their lips move their words match them.

One of my martial arts instructors once told me “To be the best that one can be, one must always dream of being better.” This means that the journey to mastery will never end and that there will always be battles to fight, new styles to learn, and punches to take.

Don’t forget to keep the cauldrons hot!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.


Kerry Wills has worked as a Consultant and a Project Manager for Fortune 500 companies on multi-million dollar technology projects since 1995. During that time, he has gained experience in several capacities; as a Program Manager, Project Manager, Architect, Developer, Business Analyst, and Tester. Having worked in each of these areas gives Kerry a deep understanding of all facets of an Information Technology project. Kerry has planned and executed several large projects as well as remediated several troubled projects.

Kerry is a member of Mensa and has a unique perspective on project work, resulting in ten patents, published work in project management journals and books, and speaking engagements at over twenty Project Management conferences and corporations around the world. Kerry is a passionate speaker who has a reputation for delivering entertaining presentations combined with vivid examples from his experiences. Kerry recently published a book called “Essential Project Management Skills” which can be found at all major on-line book retailers. Kerry runs a Project Management blog on http://kerrywills.wordpress.com