Project Management and Coaching in the Super Bowl
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
On Sunday February 4th 2018, thousands of fans will flock to US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis,MN, to watch the pinnacle of the NFL season. Super Bowl 52 will be a showdown between The Philadelphia Eagles and Tom Brady's New England Patriots, the reigning champions after their epic comeback against the Falcons 12 months ago. In the space of 4 short hours, the thousands of hours of dedication given by the members of each team will be tested to the maximum in this winner takes all curtain closer. A tremendous amount of pressure falls on the shoulders of the team's coach, but how is this similar to the work of a Project Management Professional (PMP)? Let's take a look!
Winner takes all
Most people will be sitting in the comfort of their homes, or maybe a local bar, watching the event unravel, surrounded by friends, family, multi-million dollar commercials, and copious amounts of calorie-rich snacks. By the end of Sunday, we will know who was victorious and who wasn't, and the journalists will be busy typing away through the night to get their stories ready for the Monday morning papers. For the winners, a night of celebrations will follow, with the expectation of media hype, bonuses, new contracts, and a trip to the White House to follow. For the second place team, a chance to reflect on what could have been will take center stage, before the players go on break until the pre-season preparations kick back in, long after the winter snow has said it's final farewells.
Everything on the line
Some of these players will have been preparing for this moment since they first picked up a pigskin as a two year old who just walked for the first time. Many will have had the goal to win a Super Bowl at the top of their bucket list for their entire careers, and here they find themselves with just 60 minutes of football to demonstrate that they are the best. The average armchair fan will only see the efforts of the players during Sunday's game, and will fail to realize the tremendous effort, dedication, and sacrifice made by all involved over the course of their lives.
Overseeing all of this, charged with creating an incredible team of individuals, who have the unity to win the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy, is the team's head coach. Everything is on the line, and this is a true test of each coach's ability to establish goals, plan, assemble, organize, and execute. This is very similar to the efforts of a project manager overseeing a rapid rollout project, and today we look at the similarities and differences between these two leadership positions.
Billion dollar contracts
How are NFL coaches similar to project management professionals? Including being doused with a bucket of Gatorade in celebration of achieving a goal, and the multi-million dollar contracts, PMPs typically live a very similar life to their NFL counterparts. (Remove tongue from cheek). Let's take a look at these two critical roles, and evaluate whether a former NFL coach has what it takes to fall back on a career managing rapid rollout projects.
Dreams of rollouts
First things first: I personally have not heard of anyone who as a 5 year old, would be found running through their house impersonating their favorite project manager and making play by play commentary as they complete the final location of a rapid rollout project! Nor have I seen TV shows featuring project managers, and what goes on behind the scenes in their lives. Despite these stark differences, there are multiple ways in which these two individuals experience many of the same challenges.
Team of excellent individuals
As the great Don Shula famously said, “The important thing isn't what the coach knows. The important thing is what the coach can impart to the people he's responsible for. If we win on Sunday, it means our information got through. That's what coaching is—the ability to transmit information” (Adler, 2003, p. 124).
There is no way that a project manager would be able to complete a thousand store POS system rollout by himself. There are strict time restrictions on the execution of this project that mean hundreds of technicians are required, each charged with succeeding in their area of responsibility. Win each of the smaller battles, and you win the war.
Right talent & the right place
Believe it or not, placing round pegs in square holes typically does not end well. The team has to be assembled in a way that ensures the right talent is in the right places, and the required expertise is present. Each person is selected for the skills that they bring to the table, and it is the job of the leader to make sure that they assemble the best people for each position. However, just because you have the best people in place, doesn't automatically mean that you are going to be successful. There is so much more to consider, with time management, delegation, communication and problem solving just a few of the skills required to make things tick in both positions.
Goals & defining success
At the start of a major project, the project manager is required to assemble his team, communicate his goal, expectations, required behavior, and vividly describe what success with this endeavor looks like. Once the team has been assembled, the goals and vision shared and responsibilities assigned, it's time to start preparing for the big day.
Accountability and ownership
Each member of the team has their individual area of expertise and responsibility that they are accountable for. As Vince Lombardi once said, "Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work". Rollout project management professionals and NFL coaches are both required to assemble incredible groups of individuals who are all singing from the same hymn-sheet. One weak link, and your entire project can disintegrate into thin air.
Failing to prepare
This should go without saying, but unfortunately there are many times when people get distracted from the task at hand, and neglect key stages of the planning process.
Right place at the right time
Logistics - responsible for making sure that the materials and equipment get to the right place at the right time. Any delays can be costly and can knock the entire project off schedule, jeopardizing the success of everything. There is the member of the backroom staff with the football team who is responsible for flights, transportation, equipment, and personnel. If you don't have any players at the Super Bowl, there is no chance of you winning. Don't believe me? Just ask any fans of the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Detroit Lions. These 4 franchises hold claim to having never been part of a Super Bowl. This might sound as bad as things can get for an NFL team, but I believe the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings have it worse. These two teams have both played in 4 Super Bowls but are yet to win. Maybe next year guys...
At the start of the season, the ultimate goal for every team is winning the Super Bowl. It is the coach's responsibility to share his goal and his vision, and provide his staff with the milestones that need to be hit along the way to achieving this goal. In the same way, a project manager is responsible for describing to his team what a successful project will look like, and what check ins along the way will reassure them that they are on track.
It's a marathon, not a sprint
The New England Patriots started their season all the way back on August 10th with a 31-24 preseason defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sunday's game will be their 23rd game of the season, with each game being similar to a task faced by a project manager.
Those who can, do
One of the interesting things about both situations, is that frequently the leader of each team was not known through their career as someone with world class talent. Most of the current NFL coaches never actually played in the league, and some even gave up football after high school. However, what they do possess is the strategic mindset, communication, and organization to create and motivate the best teams. Being an expert in your chosen field can be beneficial, but definitely isn't a prerequisite.
Expect the unexpected
No matter how thorough your preparation, you always need to have a contingency plan in your back pocket, because typically anything that could go wrong, does go wrong. Thank you very much Mr. Murphy. It could be extra equipment, back up personnel, an alternative strategy, or responding to changes in the surrounding environment.Whatever challenges you are faced with, you need to be able to navigate them, and keep your team on task.
Both groups experience pressure, but they are very different in their nature. The coach of an NFL team will be under the microscope of the franchise owners, the fans, television audiences and the media. Whereas, PMPs will be primarily concerned with satisfying the requests of their c-suite, owners, and shareholders. Both are challenging demographics to work with, and it is critical that communication lines remain open throughout.
When adversity strikes
Over the course of a season, or a project, you and your team will likely be faced with many situations that put your entire success in jeopardy. One of your suppliers unexpectedly goes bankrupt, a member of your team decides that they are going to make a move to new pastures, or you find yourself in a big hole that is going to be difficult to get out of. Whatever position you find yourself in, you need to remain calm on the surface (terrified on the inside and in front of your friends and family is acceptable) and not convey the message to your team that things are crumbling. You need to take ownership of the situation and move heaven and earth to get where you need to be. If the people who rely on your leadership and guidance see you starting to question the project, then it will very quickly be game over.
Focus vs. distractions
External and internal factors can both completely derail your efforts. As the ultimate decision maker, you are responsible for the environment, and making sure that everyone is in a position where they can be successful. Egos, politics, rumors, inequalities and poor structure can all create dysfunctional teams. Do not let these factors penetrate your group and get your project off track.
Making changes is OK
At the speed that the world is currently evolving, it's imperative that you do not rest on your laurels, and are prepared to make the changes that are necessary to pave your way to success. If something isn't working, make a change, and get your project back on track. The worst thing that you can do here is bury your head in the sand and hope that something good naturally happens. Typically it doesn't.
Unless you are bootstrapping a start up, or your boss hates you, most PMPs will find that they can spend most of their time working in climate controlled conditions. NFL coaches on the other hand, have a variety of environments to deal with, and will most of the time have to deal with what mother nature decides to send their way.
Taking time to celebrate
Project managers typically don't get the chance to celebrate, and they most definitely do not find themselves being harassed by the media, no matter how well the project goes! One major difference is that project managers will typically have to start preparing for their next "Super Bowl" almost immediately, and some might even find themselves in a position where they are playing in two "games" at the same time. With this in mind, it makes complete sense that project managers are rewarded with million dollar contracts and command such large bonus fees. Wait a minute, did I get these professions mixed up? Professionals in both positions will evaluate their work, look at what went well, search for alternatives for where things failed, and look for continued improvement over time. The challenge for PMPs here is that they typically are not blessed with months of free time to address this issue. They often have to jump onto the next rollout and make changes on the fly.
The armchair quarterback
Do you think you could do a better job? If so, I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is and prove it. From an outsider's perspective, things always look much simpler than they truly are. When you find yourself as the armchair quarterback on Sunday afternoon, take a moment to step back and think about everything that went into preparing for what you are watching. It's easy for you to sit there in the warmth of your home, and tell your buddies what throw Tom Brady should have made, or what play Doug Pederson should have ran. However, we all know that it's much simpler to do this when we are not directly involved in the pressure setting of a Super Bowl.
The final verdict
How can you take aspects of sports management and coaching, and apply them to your work? Is there something that you can learn from Bill Belichick that will allow you to elevate your team to the next level? No matter what the outcome of Sunday's game, we need to respect all of the hard work that went on behind the scenes to get these two teams to this position. As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I have no preference on who wins the Lombardi trophy this weekend, just as long as it's not the Patriots. Go Eagles!
Adler, B. (2003). Coaching matters: Leadership and tactics of the NFL‘s ten greatest coaches. Dulles, VA: Brassy's.