Four Project Management Lessons from the NFL Playoffs

Four Project Management Lessons from the NFL PlayoffsThis season, I’ve watched not one, not two, but all three of my favorite NFL teams come up empty in the playoffs. Despite my personal feelings of loss (sniff), I’m reminded that the same things that hurt sports teams on the field can hurt project teams on the job. So just for kicks, here are my top four project management lessons learned during this year’s playoffs.

Overworking key team members will usually backfire on you.

My #1 team, the Washington Redskins, had a superstar in its quarterback, Robert Griffin III.  Then came the fateful day in December when he hurt his knee in a game against the Ravens. It haunted him for the rest of the season, all the way until the last playoff game against the Seahawks, where he visibly limped across the field and eventually suffered another blow that got him yanked from the game. Now his concerned fans are wondering how long his career can last. The Skins lost the game against the Seahawks, and maybe much more.

The equivalent happens on project teams all the time.  One or two stars kill themselves to get the job done (often covering for lesser-performing team members) and essentially injure themselves in the process. They become so burned out during the peak of work that they start to question their future on the team. Long term, letting team members burn the candle at both ends hurts them and you. Instead, set realistic timeframes for projects and continually reassess workloads as you go. Your team members will do their best when they live healthy, balanced lives – and they’ll be able to contribute for longer.

At the end of the day, your customers don’t care about excuses, just results.

The Broncos/Ravens divisional playoff game was a virtual tennis match, with the two teams neck and neck throughout. At the end of regular time they were tied at 35-35, and then the game went into double overtime. There were a slew of controversial calls, especially during overtime, but the Ravens prevailed to win 38-35. The Broncos might be tempted to blame the loss on poor officiating, but where would that get them in the end? Their customers – their management and fans—will be disappointed regardless of which calls were right and which were wrong. Both teams got close, but there was only one winner.

When things go wrong on your projects, avoid bombarding your customers with excuses. Take responsibility for mistakes and be upfront with the information they need. And most importantly, be on the lookout for project risks that can undermine positive results. Proactive planning, clear two-way communication, and frequent check-ins are your friends.

Don’t celebrate project success too early.

I really didn’t know what to expect in the Seahawks/Falcons game on Sunday, but I was ready to cheer my current hometown team (Seattle) on to victory. The first half of the game was brutal, but they made an amazing comeback in the 2nd half and were shockingly ahead by a single point with 31 seconds left to play. It was a miracle – only one other team in history had come back from a +20-point deficit to win in a playoff game. We were going to do it! I poured myself a mimosa to celebrate!

Except….. on the Falcons’ final drive the Seattle defense collapsed. A couple of quick plays and the Falcons were in field goal range. A timeout snafu resulted in two (instead of one) chances for the Falcons’ kicker to attempt the 49-yard field goal. The first one, he missed. The second one, he nailed. Falcons win.

What’s the lesson here? In the Seahawks game we got within arm’s reach of victory only to have it snatched away. In projects, there’s no official game clock. Much of the time, we can’t even answer the question of what “done” looks like. But it’s up to us as project leaders to take each project through to close, whether that means following up with clients to ensure they are satisfied, doing a final post-mortem, or pulling data to see how your new feature performs.  Only then can you determine the final score.

One inspirational leader can make the difference for an entire team.

Ray Lewis is a legend, the captain and emotional leader of the Baltimore Ravens. Following an injury earlier in the year, he announced that this will be the last season in his 17-year career. The Ravens were suffering at the end of regular season, losing four of their last five games. But when Ray returned for the playoffs, they turned the ship around to beat Indy and Denver and earn a slot in the conference championship.

Did sheer love of Ray inspire the Ravens to rally to victory in the playoffs?  Maybe so. What his presence means to the team is hard to quantify, but that factor is surely accentuated by the fact that this week’s conference championship game against the Patriots, who are favored, may be his last.

In the same way that this next game could be determined largely by emotion and heart, your next project may be influenced by those things. Leaders that come to the table with nothing more than data, facts, and reason often find themselves staring into a sea of blank faces. To get truly great results, you need to inspire your team to act, and to help them find their own passion. If you can connect the dots between the “what” and the “why” of your mission, and show how that mission should be carried out, the values, work ethic, and collaboration/communication style that you demonstrate will infect the team. Then, together, you can make history.

What lessons did I miss? What do you think we will learn in the final three games of the season?

Four Project Management Lessons from the NFL Playoffs was last modified: January 18th, 2013 by Liz Pearce
Liz Pearce

About Liz Pearce

Liz Pearce is LiquidPlanner’s CEO. Her passion is putting all the pieces of a business together, and fostering innovation, productivity and joy at work. Liz is an active member of the startup and technology community and is always looking for opportunities to learn, participate, and give back.

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