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Leaders Should Run IT Projects Like Marathons

9 July, 2013

Leaders Should Run IT Projects Like Marathons

In a marathon, how well you finish often hinges on how well you start.

Tens of thousands of marathon runners descend on the Loop each fall to run the Chicago Marathon. On race day, they line up hundreds of yards deep behind the starting line and wait for the starting gun to fire. Once it does, the elite runners make for the front of the pack, while weekend warriors endure collisions and pile-ups while waiting for the bottleneck at the starting line to clear.

IT teams face similar chaos when a project launches. In the moments after a contract is signed, but before development begins, executives often sprint off into the distance, leaving the project team to navigate a messy scrum.

I’ve seen it many times before. On the pavement or in the boardroom, the elites—be they runners or executives—want to capture the glory as quickly as possible. They know success well and intuitively sprint at the sound of the gun.

While the intent may be to motivate, the opposite usually occurs. In marathons and IT projects alike, not everyone can or should be expected to keep an elite’s pace; in fact, doing so almost always leads to intense pain, including project failure, low morale and angry clients.

From my experience working with executives and on many teams, when IT elites run ahead, engineers, business analysts and account managers are left behind to sort through the myriad of details. This includes assigning roles, identifying skill gaps, and developing schedules and deadlines. It’s laborious, but very important work.

In the early stages, the project team also anticipates potential obstacles based on insights that only the individuals intimately involved in the intricate blocking and tackling of project planning would know.

They, like 10-minute milers, must focus on a solid, quality finish, not a record-setting performance.

Projects routinely run late and limp to the finish line for this reason. The gun goes off when the contract is signed. But it takes time to set up teams, get them working together and address alignment issues in a way that makes them reliably productive.

From what I’ve seen, IT elites who convey a complete understanding of the project’s mission to their teams on day No. 1 always finish best. Specifically, they clearly communicate the project’s charter, define success, express their vision for its important role in the company’s future and ensure there is complete clarity—from managers on down.

Unfortunately, such inspiring displays of leadership are few and far between.  Still, project team members and supervisors can ask themselves the following important questions:

  • Does everyone understand what the project will accomplish?
  • Are there any concerns that should be addressed before the project begins?
  • Does everyone understand their roles and responsibilities?

Such an exercise can clear up many of the issues that plague IT projects early on. Most importantly, it increases the likelihood that as many IT team members as possible cross the starting line at the same time. It also prevents them from colliding into each other—figuratively, of course—amid the frenzy of a project launch.

Many of these important lessons continue once the race or project actually begins. Discipline and focus on reaching the finish line remain just as important down the stretch as they do in the initial chaotic moments.

Based on my experiences, project team members—like marathon runners—generally want to perform well.  That’s likely why you hired them. But to do so, both athletes and project team members need clarity about the route and the exact location of the finish line. They also both need coaching and support through the grueling course, especially in the last few miles.

Like a marathon runner who ‘hits the wall’ at mile 20, well before the race is over, exhausted project teams can become discouraged if the end seems too far to reach. Decision-making slows, clarity fades and the team itself may begin to disintegrate.

It doesn’t have to be like that, if a project manager cheers them on enthusiastically from the sidelines right from the start.

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