The Project Notebook

Inspiration from a Winning Coach

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 In recent years the annual phenomenon known as “March Madness”, aka the NCAA basketball championships, has often concluded in April.  As I watch these games, I always think of my personal project manager “role model”, John Wooden.  This talented individual coached several UCLA basketball teams to NCAA championships.  His philosophy in molding diverse “project” teams into winners year after year has been my inspiration in many a project management effort.

One of the biggest challenges that project managers face is leading groups of individuals to accomplish the project goals and solutions.  In many situations project managers select or are assigned people who have specific functional and/or technical skills needed for the project activities.  These skills often are more individually based rather than team based.  This attribute means that project team members excel when allowed to work by themselves.  The down side is that the sum of individual efforts generally leads to much less than a 100% team effort.  Varying expertise levels, different approaches, previous project experiences and boundless egos combine to present project managers with a responsibility that is often defined as “herding snakes”.

So what can be learned from a winning basketball coach in order to address this project management challenge?  Every year John Wooden was presented with a new “project” team.  Some coaches who face the same situation use the “it’s my way or no way” approach.  Instead of molding each player to a predetermined strategy, Mr. Wooden focused on the “project” goal of winning games.  He assessed the talents of each of his players in light of this goal.  He then developed techniques, plays, and training dedicated to making a winning team based on the integrated strengths of the individual players.  Obviously, the players also had to be made to realize that it was more beneficial to them personally to be part of a winning team than a “star” individual on a losing team.

Let’s look at a specific project management technique that can incorporate John Wooden’s winning philosophy.  While every project has many activities that must be accomplished, it is much more effective to re-structure the work to fit the strengths of the individuals.  This effort may mean giving early small tangible deliverable assignments to each person to determine his/her true capabilities.  This technique also quickly highlights how each team member needs to be managed.  Does the person “go away” and do the assignment?  Does the person ask questions and then “go away” and do the assignment?  Or — does the person just “go away”.  By making this assessment early in the project life cycle, the project manager can readily assess strengths, opportunities for improvement and even hidden talents.

As project managers we never get all the “right” team members for a project.  However, a “winning” project manager focuses on the project goals and makes the best of what he/she is given to achieve those goals.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at <>.

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