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What FIFA World Cup 2010 Teaches Us About Project Management?
By Romin Irani

The FIFA World Cup 2010 has garnered a significant mindshare in the recent weeks. It has thrown up an interesting set of results with favourites getting knocked out early in the tournament. At the time of writing, there are 4 teams remaining and I prefer to look at the results in a slightly different way. I believe that the tournament results have a lot of lessons that we should apply to Project / Product Management ( I will use the word “Project” or “Product” interchangeably for the rest of the article). I hope you like the list and I look forward to learning more observations from all of you. I am neither a football expert nor a project management expert and not everyone may agree with my views here, but I hope you look at the bigger picture. If some of my examples illustrating a point are not palatable, please bear with me.

I have listed down the points in no particular order of importance and each point demonstrates a particular area of Project Management:

  • Do not depend on a star performer in your team.

    We expect a lot from star performers. The same applies to current greats like Rooney, Kaka, Ronaldo, Messi (who performed below expectations) and most likely you have some star performers in your project team too. Do not expect them to bail you out everytime. You need to build backups who can take over from them on off days or simply when they are not there. In a football team, your star performer could be red carded and you will have to do without him. Similarly in a project, a person could be ill or simply put in his resignation; you need to be prepared for any eventuality.

  • A great technical person does not necessarily make a great or good manager (coach).

    Diego Maradona and a host of former great players are currently managers of their respective national teams. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were great players. They have demonstrated football skills that have delighted us, when they were at the peak of their playing prowess. However, it is important to note that they do not make good managers. Managing a team calls for a completely different set of skills. There is strategy, team analysis, people management, dealing with the press, etc. It is no wonder that there have been very few instances of a person repeating his triumph, both as a player and a manager. The only one who comes to mind is Franz Beckenbauer (player of the winning team in 1974 and manager of the winning team in 1990). The same scenario applies to project management. The best technical person should be left to do what he does best, solve and address the technical areas. Instead look out for a manager as someone who has more all round skills. If the technical person does demonstrate those skills, then by all means go with that otherwise you are running a great risk.

  • There is no substitute for planning.

    We have seen several teams that were doing real good and then all of a sudden they got caught by a team that seemed to have analysed them inside out. The result : A demoralizing and one sided defeat. What prevented the losing team from doing the kind of planning that the opponent did? We are not sure but it could be complacency or simply not considering some factors. When we relate this to Project Management, it is important to emphasize that good planning at every stage is required, no matter how well you might be doing at that stage. A key arsenal to planning better is to constantly measure what is going wrong (and right) and see how you can tweak some processes to improve the results. In short, planning should not be compromised and the results should be measured to be fed back into the next stage of planning. If planning for a Product, make sure you have looked at all areas, right down to your marketing channels.

  • To Err is Human.

    Mistakes happen all around us. We have seen some horrible mistakes performed by both players and referees that have completely changed the complexion of the game. This is not the first time it has happened and it will not be the last time. As the wise man says, “This is all part of football” and it does not get simpler than that. The same applies to Project Management. Mistakes will happen. People will make them. If possible try to address them to reduce the damage but be cognizant of the fact that some of them cannot be reversed. They might even get repeated. But do consider human error as part of the process.

  • Address the root cause of the problem and not the symptoms.

    England must be feeling cheated for not being allowed a second goal against Germany that would have tied the match at 2-2. Fair enough! So should we still blame the referees for that result (which would be treating the symptom) or should we blame the poor performance of the English team and understand the root cause. Anyone, who watched that game, could have seen how England failed at all levels to match the better team on that day. In other words, it is important to understand the root cause rather than blaming issues that are at best, peripheral ones. The same applies to Project Management and issues that you may face. Try to understand why a certain set of problems are happening. For e.g, the code is not well written. Sure, but there could be a whole lot of other real causes: insufficient use cases, incorrect requirements, lack of best practices usage by the developer, lack of unit testing, etc. So analyze deeper and treat the root cause, not the symptom.

  • Everyone needs to perform and know their role.

    A football team comprises of 11 players (though some might say 12/13/14 .. if the referees decisions go your way!). Still, except in rare occasions everyone needs to perform as a team. There might be a streak of individual genius that could get a goal but the team still has to defend the lead. Working in a team is no different, all individuals (Project Manager, Coders, Leads, Testers, etc) need to perform and the objectives should be clear to all. The forwards in a football team are fed by the midfielders, who in turn depend on the defenders and goalkeepers. Similarly, the project team too needs to have clearly defined roles and what they need to do in the overall scheme of things. A defender in a football team should be good at defending 99% of his time. Occasionally he can move forward to feed the forward line or even take corners or an odd header or two from a corner kick. The same applies to your project team. Even if you are a developer, do some more integration testing, learn the tools that the integrators use, etc. They will come in handy. No matter what your role is, be a team player first.

  • Past performance is no guarantee of future performance OR Overconfidence can be your biggest enemy.

    Before the World Cup started, if you asked people about whom they think would win the World Cup, a majority would end up saying Brazil. So what if they cannot even name the 11 players that make up the Brazilian team. Brazil has the best record among all teams but that does not count for anything. If anything else, it puts additional pressure and sometimes even a bit of overconfidence, if you start believing the noises around you, that you are the champions. The same applies to successful Project Teams. Every successful project undertaken by the team should remain just that – a successful project. When a new project starts, the slate is wiped clean and you must get down to business without a hangover that the past performance is going to get you through this time too. For all you care, your past triumphs could have seen some lucky breakthroughs, which could be absent this time around. So always be on your guard and a little bit of paranoia helps too.

  • Ring Out the Old , Ring in the New

    There is a time and place for everything and everyone. Some teams relied on old timers simply based on their experience. Experience is a valuable asset but only if it is applied to the current generation and trends. Old methods always give way to new and more efficient tactics/methods. Change is a constant and investing in the youth is another risk which can pay really well. Germany has one of the youngest sides and when moulded by experienced managers/support staff, is performing well. The same cannot be said of teams that packed themselves with old timers, who were just out of sorts when confronted with the new methods and strategies. In Project Management too, time trusted methods need to be looked at to determine if they best suit the current trends. Agile methods are much more prevalent now, since they allow teams to be more dynamic and responsive. Apply this at all levels i.e. processes, people, tools, languages and frameworks. Look out for newer ways of doing things but do your homework first. New technologies come with significant risks but those who can harness them and mould them to suit their project can reap the benefits for years to come.

  • You need to have luck on your side sometimes.

    Football is a game after all. You need luck too to get a break in the game. It could be a mistake on the opponent’s part that gets you a goal. In most cases, the luck favors the team that has been working hardest in the field or has done a lot of work in preparing for the game. It is almost a sort of poetic justice, when it happens. While doing a project too, concentrate on the tasks and work harder, especially when you are facing a problem. Luck is usually defined as “When opportunity meets preparation” and this could not be more true. So keep working and lady luck will pay you a visit.

  • Early setbacks can be a blessing in disguise.

    Germany has done well in this World Cup. Spain has also resurrected itself after a stunning loss to Switzerland. Germany too lost to Serbia in their group. Both these teams received an early jolt that made them fight for survival. And they have taken those jolts and come out strongly, much more mentally prepared than the others. The same applies to a Project. It is good to know about problems early enough in the project development cycle rather than when you ship the product and the customer reports about it. Even architectural issues, if found out in the beginning of the cycle should be addressed early enough to set the pace for the rest of the project phases.

  • Listen to criticism but choose whom to ignore.

    Critics are everywhere. Experts are everywhere. In this internet age with multiple channels available to every human being to voice their views, it is difficult to figure out whom you should listen to, when the chips are down. A general view is to ignore all those who criticize and look to those who give suggestions. That is sound advice at times but the best advice might come from those who are criticizing you. The best thing is to know whom to listen to. Some teams in the World Cup have not fared well because the team players starting criticizing the coach, their methods, etc. The Coach/Manager at the end of the day has the final say. The same applies to Project Management, listen to criticism from those whom you trust and who have a stake in the proceedings. There might be something that you are clearly overlooking but because of the way you perceive it, you simply brush it aside as mindless criticism.

  • Respect your opponents (competitors).

    You could be the best player of your era or you could be the best technical person in the project. Your team is probably going great guns in the tournament so far (Argentina) or you could have a product that is selling like hot cakes and eclipsing all competition. That does not mean you stop respecting your opponents. You should defer from bad mouthing or belittling them in the press because when the tables get turned, you end up cutting a sorry figure. All the teams have qualified through a grueling qualifying phase and at the end of the day, simply qualifying itself shows that the team can compete, give and take a few. The same applies to your competitors. They could have something in the works, which could stun you when their new product is released. So respect everyone and let your team (or product features) do the talking for you.

  • You need support at all levels and from unexpected quarters.

    No team is going to be successful if you do not get support from every level. In a football team, there are players, managers, support staff, etc. In a Project Team, you have developers, managers, testers and so on. Everyone needs to provide support in their quest of their target. It is also easy to overlook that support needs to come even from outside of the team. For the football team, it would be their federation, their fans and even support inside the stadium (why not!). For the project team, never undervalue the support that Top Management can give you to ensure that the project will be successful. Some of them may not look like direct contributors but their contribution is important.

  • Play to your strengths.

    Brazil is known for its beautiful football. We did not see much of it this time. Some theories doing the rounds is that the coach wanted them to play more like the other teams. I do not know how much of this is true but it brings up an important point. It applies to Project / Product Management too. There will be competitors in your space and they will have features that are different or better than yours. When faced with such a problem, it might just make more sense to play to your strengths and see how you can make that strength so compelling to the market that it becomes the norm and makes your competitors then play catch up. The strengths that we are talking about could be anything. It could be customer support, your documentation, a specific algorithm, almost anything.

I hope you can relate to the above points and do have a lot more points to add. I look forward to your comments. I leave you with an interesting statistic: The last time someone successfully defended their title was almost 50 years back, when Brazil won back to back titles in 1958 (in Sweden) and 1962 (in Chile). This surely means that if you are the leading firm in your industry, do not relax even one bit. Those who are down and out today or those who are just beginning could be the next winners!

Original article can be found here.

Romin Irani is a principal architect at Xoriant in Mumbai, India. Over the last 14 years Romin has been predominantly working with US based ISV’s to bring their software products to the market. You can read more from him on his blog. Romin can also be followed on twitter.

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