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Project managers can learn a thing or two from team sports

Project managers can learn a thing or two from team sports

The many similarities between project management and team sports allow project managers to learn from the latter

If you spend a reasonable amount of time working on projects, you are likely to hear team members use sports metaphors. This is a positive trait. Sports metaphors can be great motivators and examples of “how to do things.”

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Beyond the metaphors, can methodologies in team sports suggest core practices for project management? We think the answer to this question is yes. There are many similarities between project management and team sports. For the purpose of this article, we focus on eight areas that we feel are particularly relevant.

  1. Individual talent does not guarantee a successful team or outcome. Individual talent does not guarantee team success in any situation. It is the way the team performs as a unit that matters the most. Team selection and how team members “gel together” are key to ensuring that individual skills brought to the team merge to produce a successful outcome.

    To realise the best result, this might include inciting some deliberate “creative tension” amongst team members. Sports teams have opportunities to play and learn together over a season or longer. Project teams are usually one-off in nature, so members must quickly learn to work together.

    In project management, we typically create a resource plan that details the skills required for the project, and at what point they will be required. It is crucial to consider the impact of the way in which each individual who is selected will mesh with the whole team. This is as true in sports teams (e.g., when a new player joins) as it is for project teams.

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    Next, consider the impact of having a “superstar” player on your team. Very few of us would say “No” to having a “high impact player” or players. However, we must decide if the superstar or, for that matter, any team member, is the right fit for both the project and the team –- that is, does their personality mesh with others, will they be a fully integrated part of the team, and will they work towards the common goal?

    You need to be certain that their impact is positive (exemplary performances that help the team), not negative (behavior that causes team friction). Whether staffing a project or a sports team, take the time to fully explore personnel resources and determine how each person will relate with their teammates.

    In some cases, either basic or more extensive personality profiling before team selection may be appropriate. Careful team selection (within the constraints you will have for available resources) is about managing the risks that, if they occur, can prevent your group of individuals from becoming a high-performing team.

  2. Negative influences do exist. Within most projects, there are stakeholders with conflicting agendas. It is difficult to avoid, because different stakeholders have different roles and views. We must account for all stakeholders in our planning and consider their needs appropriately. This is certainly true in team sports. For example, most spectators watching a team sports event will be supporting "their team"; they will not be impartial.

    The psychological advantage to a team playing “at home” is well known. At key moments, some people will hope that a player misses an opportunity, and others will hope they use it. It is important to gauge the influence and impact of each stakeholder group. For example, during spectator sports, how loud will fans of the visiting team be during the game? What impact will this have on team performance? Are there ways to mitigate an adverse effect on performance?

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