Dealing with changing circumstances

15 Aug, 2008
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Dealing with changing circumstances: The difference between a medal candidate and a medal winner
Imagine: You have trained very hard for the Olympics and are very well prepared. You have an overload of red corpuscles from training in the Himalaya, you have practiced on the Olympic track, you submitted yourself to light therapy to prepare your body for the time zone difference and you have trained in an ill-air conditioned gym to prepare your body for the smog and atmospheric humidity. You are ready for a big performance and you made it through the trials and qualified for the Olympic Games. You passed all medical tests. They examined your hair, blood, sweat and tears, and you are not suspected to have used any kind of stimulating drugs. You definitely are a candidate for an Olympic medal and for eternal fame!

In the field of IT project management we find that a lot of projects have a false start. For some of them, the reason lies in lack of quality resources, lack of commitment, no valid business case or clear goals. But others are thoroughly prepared, with a library full of start-up documents, analysis, blue prints and formal signatures. All tools, brains and login ID’s are in place. Even so, research shows that 70% of all IT projects fail. However, you do not doubt that your project will be successful!
We believe that sports give us valuable insights in the art of project performance.
With media covering a lot of sports, we, the fans behind the TV, can get a close view on success and fail factors of every match. Obvious reasons for failure are injuries. For individual performances, for example the 100 meter sprint, injury is fatal. When performing with a team, a substitute can make sure the team can still compete. This can even make the necessary difference; during the recent European Soccer Championship many believe Spain only started to play champion-worthy football only when Villa got injured and was replaced by Fabregas.
Harder to grasp is the concept of the right mentality. Winning is out of the question when ‘things are not right between the ears’. Athletes can be overly concentrated, or not able to keep the right concentration level while competing and get distracted by the audience or a fellow athlete in the Olympic Village.
What also make a huge difference is being able to respond to unexpected things.
Imagine: You enter the Olympic stadium and take your position on the track, lane 4. Your trust on your tactical plan: do not overdo it in the first rounds, and make your move in the final lap. This has been you winning tactic for yeards. However, your current competitors dash off, right from the start. This is unexpected; they always waited until the final lap! What is your ability to adjust to this during the race? Do you freeze, keep to the initial plan and run the risk of being too late, or are you flexible enough to change plans?
To take the Soccer European Championship this summer as another example: there was a remarkable difference between the matches Holland – Italy and Holland – Russia. When playing Italy, the Dutch team managed to adjust their tactics in the second half when Italy became stronger and brought in substitutes. Against Russia the Dutch team was paralyzed and could not properly react to the fact that Russia was the stronger team. What was the cause of this?
To return to our business: IT projects. A good preparation will certainly contribute to project success. But what preparation is necessary and what does not contribute to success?.
For example: It is very common for sports teams to go to a training camp, as part of their preparation. But how many projects start with learning to know each other? As for injuries: all sports coaches will tell you not to focus on the players that cannot play, but focus on the ones that are on the field. In projects a lot of time is usually wasted by waiting for the ‘right’ persons to be able to participate. They need to finish another project or they are off sick. This can seriously affect the performance of the rest of the team and the team spirit as well. Giving the team responsibility and trust instead of relying on certain individuals can lead to unexpected performance and results.
The team spirit has a major impact on performance. A happy team solves problems faster and is more productive. Project managers are trained to focus on planning and budget. Team management is usually a neglected aspect in project management courses. Keep the team concentrated on their tasks and shield the team from distractions is the credo. Project managers (and managers) alike can actually over manage the team and thereby slow down its velocity. The right approach is to facilitate the ones who need to deliver.
And then there is concentration: it is a well known fact that focusing on various different tasks is not a very effective way of working. Stay focused. Dutch swimming champion Pieter van den Hoogenband decided not to compete in the 200 meter race, and focus on the 100 meters to improve his chances on a golden medal in that race. This is also applicable to IT project management. But how many team members are really fully allocated to your project?
Winning an Olympic medal requires more than a good preparation and necessary muscles. Having the right focus and agility when it comes to adapting to changing circumstances can make the difference between being performing magnificently or having an off day. Between being only a medal candidate and gaining eternal fame. Between a successful project and sleepless nights
Jarl Meijer


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