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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Endurance Events Can Teach You about Project Management

Just over a week ago I ran my first marathon. It was an unseasonably hot and humid day and a very challenging course – especially for a first time marathoner like me. It is uncertain if  delirium drove me to crazy thoughts, or if the extreme effort gave me incredible clarity of mind such that I was temporarily transformed into a great philosopher contemplating the similarities between endurance events and project management. Either way, I think I had some pretty good ideas while I was out there so, crazy or not, I am going to share them with the world!

My first musings on management started at about mile 9. I had just finished about 3 miles of uphill climb, the last mile of which was very steep and purported to be the toughest part of the course. It was very tough but it was also one of the most enjoyable parts of the run for me. I think it was the feeling of putting in so much effort, knowing that I had to keep going no matter how tough the challenge, and having faith that all the planning and training would pay off – I was ready for this! Once I crested the hill, I still had a lot of hard work to do but I knew that after that hill, I could handle almost anything. At the top of the hill, I started to think about how much endurance you need to get through a marathon and how it is similar to getting through a tough project. Management endurance is not physical, of course, it is mental. However, in my opinion, only about half of the endurance needed for a marathon is physical – the other half is mental endurance. This is what gives you the will to keep going when your body wants to give up. It keeps you smiling and feeling energized when your body is not feeling quite so happy with you and your energy levels feel depleted. It is this same mental endurance that gets project managers through tough projects and helps them keep themselves and their teams motivated and focused on the end result even when the going gets tough.

Training for a marathon takes a consistent effort. You start with a crazy idea that you want to run a marathon. That evolves into a plan which maps out what you need to do and when. Just as with a project, you have a clearly defined start and finish date. You identify milestones along the way. These can be shorter distance races, speed checkpoints, or they can be psychologically or physically challenging distances, like your first 20+ miler. Your marathon plan will require a budget that includes the expenses to train and participate in the race or races you have chosen. In addition to your budget you will have a procurement plan for the things you need to purchase. These include things like race registration, travel and accommodation, and purchasing the items you need for training and race day. These items will include running shoes, clothing, and nutritional items. These purchases are not haphazard – they need to be budgeted for and purchased at the right time. Part of the plan is to test a few things to see what works best. This is like race prototyping. You may test which shoes work best and you have to make sure you have enough pairs of shoes so you are not left with a worn out pair by race day. You must not wear brand new shoes on race day so you have to work backwards from your finish date to make sure you have time to do some long miles in the shoes you will race in. You test nutrition products and different clothing items. You may also test race strategies or work on running form.

The effort to complete a marathon does not start when you cross the start line and finish when you cross the finish line. It starts the day you start thinking about running a race and deciding what race you want to train for. It continues through making the final decision, creating your training program (schedule) and continues through every single run, every success, every setback and every adjustment to the plan. Sometimes things happen that require a change to a project. It could be created by business needs, technical issues or staffing problems. Your project’s scope may change, you may need to remove functionality or features or you may need to push out the release date. The same things can happen with marathon training. The first time I was training for a marathon I got pneumonia about half way through the program which put me out of action for 10 weeks. I had to decrease the scope of my training plan and switch to the half marathon race instead as I didn’t have enough time to catch up on missed training before the event. I then had to create a new plan to train for another full marathon. I have worked on technical projects that experienced similar problems and were resolved in a similar way. We decreased the scope of the current project, released the project in phases, or pushed out the end date.

By the time I reached mile 16 of my marathon, just about every part of my body was hurting. With 10 more miles to go I couldn’t risk letting myself think about how much pain my leg muscles were experiencing so there was nothing for it but to keep philosophizing about how what I was doing was like managing a project. While mile 16 and beyond were certainly more painful than most of the projects I have managed, I can recall one or two projects with some rather excruciating moments!

So I had philosophized my way through concept, project proposal, budgeting, scheduling and some of the implementation in my parallel project management/marathon running imaginary world. What was I missing? Oh yes, teamwork, communication, integration, deployment and post-deployment. By now I was convinced that I was definitely onto something and I had 10 more miles to get it all figured out in my head. I started with teamwork. Teamwork comes from training with others. Getting up at 5am on Saturday mornings and doing those long miles together. Sometimes you run together and sometimes you don’t but you always have breakfast together afterwards so you can talk about your run. If it is a challenging day – a bad run day – words of encouragement and camaraderie can go a long way to making you feel much better.

What about communication? This is all the communication you do with running partners or running friends generally. It also includes blogging about long distance running and walking, social media updates and phone calls to family, friends, and mentors about progress. Non-running friends may well get tired of the updates (just like project stakeholders do when we over-communicate with them) so it is a learning experience to curb your enthusiasm and be selective in communications. Not everyone is as excited about the details of every single run! Communication also includes, reading and listening to others, getting advice from the experts or from more experienced athletes. These communications enable you to learn from others’ challenges and successes.

Integration and testing really comes into play when you run shorter distance races to test your race strategies, and during your milestone training runs where you do everything exactly as you would on race day. These are like dress rehearsal runs. You wear exactly what you will wear on race day. You eat the same thing for breakfast; consume the same nutrition and sports drinks that you will on race day. You try to emulate what will happen on race day as closely as possible. The only differences are that you will be running a little bit shorter distance and at a slower pace than you will on the actual day. You are testing that everything will go smoothly but you don’t want to run your race before race day or you will be too worn out to do it! There should be no surprises on race day just like there should be no surprises on product launch day. Nothing that is new and untested is allowed. Every single thing has been tested individually and together – for your marathon and for your product!

Deployment, as with many projects, is a very small part of the plan. For a race – it takes a few hours. For a technology project it often takes a similar amount of time. Preparing for deployment usually takes more time than the actual deployment itself. This includes such things as travelling to the race site; checking into your hotel (if applicable); visiting the race expo to pick up your race packet and laying out your clothes ready for the next day. You try to get a good night’s sleep so you are prepared for anything on race day.

Post-deployment tasks are as important in marathon running as in technical projects. After the race there is a checklist of things you must do. You need to get your photo taken, receive your medal, replenish some fluids and eat, eat and eat some more! You need to check to make sure everything is still working and that you don’t need medical attention. It is advisable to move more slowly, do some light stretching, and maybe take a nap. After you are rested and sure that everything is OK, it is time to celebrate but you might be too tired to celebrate too heartily so planning another celebration in a week or two when you feel more rested and calm is a good idea! Recovery time is an important part of post-deployment for racing. Your body is worn out and needs time to rest and recuperate. Just as you will keep an eye on your product after deployment and possibly fix a few bugs – you have to do the same with your post-marathon body for a week or two. Then it is time to choose another project (or race) and start the process all over again!

Just because managing projects is hard it doesn’t mean it cannot be fun and hugely rewarding. Just like marathons, if it were easy then everyone would be doing it. It takes endurance, attitude and oodles of enthusiasm to complete projects and marathons without going completely insane. When you cross that finish line, you know for sure that it has all been worth it and that the journey was as important as the destination.

Endurance events and project management have a lot in common. I vote that project managers should get a medal for every project they finish in the allotted time. It is an endurance event after all, and it is only fair!