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5 More Rules For Project Success

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Originally published in PM Times on April 19, 2016.

Six years ago, we wrote an article on five children’s rules of world cup soccer and how those rules apply to the world of projects. Our 6 grandsons have grown and acquired new skills, so keeping up with them is a challenge. New rules have emerged—not rules of soccer, but guidelines for playing soccer that also apply to project work.

So again, at the risk of overusing the myriad analogies relating to children’s play to projects, here are five more rules for successful projects.

Rule #1: Mentoring May Cause Short-Term Hits to the Schedule, but has Big Long-Term Benefits.

Our six grandsons range in age from fourteen to two. Our typical game is kids versus adults, and the kids almost always win. They are exceedingly competitive, the older boys wanting to practice their increasingly advanced skills. However, we have noticed that the older boys tend to be patient and encouraging with the younger ones. For example, they give the ball to the five-year-old allowing him to drive down field and kick goals. When the two-year-old wanders onto the field, they stop the game and give him tips on how to kick the ball. This mentoring is something each older boy has done with his younger brothers, who in turn have grown into really good players.

Experts emerge on most projects. These are the folks who have been around, know the ropes and have experience not only in the technology and methodologies but also in getting things done given the constraints of the corporate culture. Often these experts go out of their way to mentor those with less experience /or those who are struggling for a variety of reasons to complete their tasks.

However, sometimes these experts do not take the time to mentor others. Sometimes they find themselves too busy meeting tight deadlines to take the time needed to bring new people up to speed and provide help to those who are struggling. Sometimes they are encouraged more to meet the project schedule than to take the time to help others. Sometimes they enjoy the expert status and do not want to share it.

Coaching and MentoringOver the years, we have seen that the time spent helping others brings big rewards, such as having resources who are loyal, hard-working, and who understand the team and corporate culture. It also provides helpful backup for the inevitable moments when the primary players are not available. When existing team members take the time to help others assimilate, assuming these team members want to learn and work hard, it almost always pays off.

So how can we take the time to mentor others? We have a tip, and while this tip might not work universally, it has proven useful to the authors. One of the authors (Elizabeth) struggled with how to have team members mentor others while meeting the schedule. She began putting 5% of the project total into the schedule for team development types of activities. She explained to reluctant sponsors the benefits of this approach and the risk to the project if a key team member left without backup and how such an approach helps ensure that resources are available for current and future projects.

Rule #2: Pass The Ball.

The older boys have realized the importance of passing the ball rather than trying to make all the goals themselves. Of course, this important lesson in collaboration is not followed all the time and is not often practiced by the younger boys. Sometimes the boys are so intent on making goals that they run the ball and then kick it wildly, when had they passed it, they would have likely scored a goal.

Collaboration is valued in many organizations and on many teams. However, collaboration is sometimes given lip service but not practiced. Sometimes we work so hard to get our tasks done that we don’t call for help when it’s needed. There are many valid reasons why this happens. Sometimes we’re afraid to call for help because we fear it will expose a weakness, incompetence, that we’re behind schedule, or that we don’t have other team members that can do the work. And besides, we know that we can get the tasks done quicker and better than anyone else. Nevertheless, “kicking the ball to someone else” has big advantages. Not only does it get the job done, but it develops skills in other members of the team.

Read about Tips and Tricks for Facilitating Conflict Resolution

Rule #3: Heroes Tire Or Get Injured.

Some of the boys do not want to pass the ball because they want to be heroes, running the ball and kicking goals themselves. They try so hard to score goals single-handedly that they almost always run into each other, causing pain, bruising, limping, and general misery. Not to mention running out of breath after sprinting the length of the field. There is always a delay of game, and often it signals the end of the game if the injury is significant enough.

At work we want credit. We want to be noticed. Sometimes that desire, however, leads us to want to be the hero that saves the project day. Being a hero usually involves putting in overtime (often lots of it), and coming through time and time again under unfavorable conditions. Heroes are almost always universally admired and appreciated. However, it is extremely difficult to sustain the effort needed to maintain hero status. The quality of our work begins to suffer, and we run the risk of burnout. And when the hero is unavailable and there is no one to step into their place, the project suffers.

Rule #4: No Goalie? Weigh The Risks And The Rewards.

Leaving the team without a goalie (called an unprotected or open net) is a risk. In our kids versus adults game, goalies are assigned. However, inevitably the kids’ goalie gets bored waiting for action, and when the ball comes their way, they run it down the field to try and kick a goal. The few goals that the adults get often happens when there is an unprotected net. The boys are following what they see on professional soccer and hockey teams who from time to time, particularly at the end of a game, leave the net unprotected. Sometimes these pro teams score goals, and often they give up goals.

On our projects, we constantly weigh the trade-offs between risks and the rewards. Doing what seems expedient may turn out to be the right decisions or it may have too high a cost when unexpected events occur. As with the soccer professionals, we need to make purposeful decisions about risk, rather than taking advantage of seeming opportunities without spending the time to look at potential risks. This does not mean that we always need to complete an arduous, time-consuming risk analysis. However, it is always wise to think about both the benefits as well as the risks of opportunities that present themselves to us.

Rule #5: We Need A Neutral Referee.

The last rule in the 2010 article said, “Don’t argue with the referee.” Arguments could land us a “red card,” which might lead to our expulsion. We still think that’s great advice. We also think it’s important to have a referee. In our kids’ game, the referee usually defaulted to an adult with the loudest voice or the most soccer experience, with the kid complaining vociferously about the decisions that were made.

Conflict is inevitable, but without a neutral referee, it can derail the project. Our project referees (such as scrum masters or neutral facilitators for requirements workshops) have to have expertise. A soccer referee who doesn’t know the rules of the game would be arbitrary and essentially useless. A workshop facilitator who knew nothing about facilitation would be the same.

So there are the five new rules for project success. As we said in the last article, there are much more. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

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