A Sports Metaphor for Project Management

Sports metaphors are popular in business. Sure they are often overused but sometimes a metaphor is a good way to communicate with people not familiar with the subject or just make a point. And let’s face it, this topic is more fun than talking about status report formats.

So what is a good sports metaphor for project management? A big part of project management is about teamwork – getting the members of the project team to work together to achieve the project’s goals. A team sport clearly represents project management better than an individual sport. There are quite a few to choose from: hockey, basketball, soccer, etc.

One sport often used to illustrate teamwork is rowing. I’m talking about competitive rowing, like in the Olympics, not going out for a spin in a rowboat. A number of companies use rowing images to reinforce messages about teamwork and collaboration. The take away is supposed to be something like “we all pull together.” I saw a recent post on leadership that used the image of a rowing crew and a rowing crew is the main image on one project management consulting company’s web site.

As a rower I can attest that rowing is very much a team sport. It takes a lot of commitment from everyone in a crew to win a rowing race. There is a lot of training to get to the needed level of fitness. And there is a lot of practice – rowing is much harder than it looks.

We work very hard to get everyone in the crew to do exactly the same thing at the same time – put the oar in the water, apply the pressure on the oar, and take the oar out of the water – for the entire length of a race. The Germans, who won the men’s eight in the 2012 Olympics, wired their practice boat so they could monitor the smallest movements of each rower and ensure that they were moving in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. The best crews look like they are rowing as one unit following the lead of the stroke – the rower in the stern (the back) of the boat. Like a lot of sports, it looks easy when it’s done well.

While rowing is a great example of teamwork, I’m not sure it’s a good metaphor for project management.

When you are running a project you have people doing different tasks – analysis and design, software development, process design, testing, training, writing documentation, etc. The trick is to get these people doing different things to do them in a way such that at the end the goals of the project are met. Over the life of the project things change – the business evolves, new technology emerges, unforeseen problems arise, etc. And, identifying and managing risk is an essential aspect of project management.

So what team sport is a good metaphor for project management?

How about sailing – especially long distance offshore racing like the Newport to Bermuda race in the U.S., the Fastnet race in England, the Volvo Ocean Race around the world, or the Sidney to Hobart race in Australia?

On a sailboat, the individuals on the crew have different roles and responsibilities. The helmsperson steers, the navigator plans the course and tracks progress, sail trimmers set the sails to make the boat go as fast as possible, and the foredeck crew handles the sails and lines for maneuvers such as changing the sails. The captain (or skipper) is in charge. Sounds like the typical IT project to me with the skipper as the PM.

In these races unexpected things happen. A sudden storm can come up. Someone may get hurt (nothing like having a wound stitched up on the deck of a small boat in rough seas) or sick (even hardcore sailors can get seasick). A piece of gear may break. Or a competitor may do something unexpected. Whatever happens the team (the skipper and the crew) have to deal with it; with the resources at hand. This is a good model for project management.

A big part of distance racing is identifying and managing risk. Different possible courses may hold the potential for getting ahead (more wind, for example) but also the risk of damage from too much wind. Putting up more sail to make the boat go faster may risk breaking the mast from too much pressure. Going full speed in the dark risks hitting a floating object and damaging the boat while slowing down risks losing time to the competition. The skipper and the team must weigh risks and rewards, make choices, and mitigate risk; and do so quickly – just like a project manager.

And to top it off, you often have cold water being dumped on you. Maybe akin to having your key developer quit midway through your project or the reaction when you explain how much meeting the new “requirements” will cost.

If you would like to see how rowing and sailing compare, take a look at these two videos:

My nominee for the sport that is the best metaphor for project management is sailing. What’s your choice?

  • Tommy Holm Hansen

    Your links both link to the 2010 Olympics.