World-Class Lessons from World Cup Coaches

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Photo: AC Moraes

People around the globe are tuning in to the FIFA World Cup. Even overloaded project managers will manage to find time to watch some of the global football championship coverage and root for their team. 

I can't help but find parallels between what happens on the pitch and some of the challenges we face as project managers. Both successful World Cup coaches and project managers spend a lot of time giving direction to a team to mitigate unexpected events. Here are four lessons to take away from these coaches that could help ensure your project produces winning results in the face of the unforeseen:

1. Set starters and specialists. World Cup coaches know what skills key team members must have to win games. They also have intimate knowledge of their players' skills, capacities, endurance and adaptability to changing conditions. That knowledge allows coaches to pick the players they want to start the game as well as those specialists to enter the field when the key players need support. 

Project managers should also know who the key team members are to have at the start of a project and the specialized resources -- such as subject matter experts on the business or work planners -- needed toward project completion to ensure success. 

2. Be a coach, not a player. One of the more risky tendencies for a coach is to try to teach his own playing expertise to the team members. Yet the best World Cup coaches focus on making the team perform well as a whole, not on providing detailed instruction on ball technique. Specialized coaches (for physical training or goaltending, for example) and fellow team members should provide this detailed level of instruction, leaving the World Cup coach free to direct the overall flow of the game. 

Project managers can do the same by identifying and employing specialized resources that can assist team members with fundamentals, such as writing good requirements and creating work plans. This frees up the project manager to focus on solving risks and issues across the project. 

3. Make sure everyone knows the plays. World Cup coaches go to great lengths to employ existing plays that are a good match for their players. In addition, they spend time creating new plays that can be used in unexpected conditions that can come up during a game. The World Cup coach spends a lot of preparation and practice time with the team making sure the plays are executed in a smooth and efficient manner. 

Project managers can do the same by identifying the right approaches -- that is, methods, processes and tools -- and spending time with the team to practice the execution of these approaches.

4. Provide feedback on results. At the end of every game, World Cup coaches spend time with the team as well as the media, sharing their thoughts on the outcome of the game. In addition, they will frequently share key decisions and outcomes that resulted in a win or loss for the team. World Cup coaches do this in a manner that reflects the overall effort of the team as opposed to the efforts of a few key players. 

Project managers should provide this type of feedback at regular intervals throughout the project, especially during project status meetings. Projects also have the equivalent of media attention in the form of sponsors, so project managers should openly provide the same type of feedback on a regular basis.  

What behaviors and practices have you seen that might help project managers create winning projects?
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