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Project Success - What I Learned from the Winter Olympics


Earlier this year I had the opportunity and honor of volunteering at the 2010 Winter Olympic games in Vancouver. Being surrounded by high achievers, so strongly focused on performance and success, gave me a great number of memories upon which to reflect. What is it that I could learn from this experience, and apply to my work on behalf of MNP’s clients?

  1. Home field advantage counts – speaking to the athletes and hearing how they drew energy from the cheering fans makes you realize how important their support can be.  With projects, it’s so important to have that broad base of support as well.  There are numerous challenges standing in the way of a successful project – having the support of your project stakeholders and users is essential to helping power through those challenges.
    When working on a project, it’s important to avoid creating a bubble around the team. Sure the team thinks it’s doing well, but without engaging those outside the bubble, you really never know if you’re on track or not.
  2. There are no small roles – my volunteering focused on hosting and supporting the families of our Canadian athletes. There was not a single medalist who didn’t go out of their way to emphasize the importance that their family, friends and coaches played in their success.
    As a project manager, you need to surround yourself with the best team possible, but regardless of how your team comes together you must ensure that each team member recognizes the importance of their contribution to the project’s success. To do this, team members need to participate in the project design and planning so that they can clearly see how their activities impact the overall project. It’s also important to recognize those contributions whenever possible.
  3. Talent alone can’t win medals – hockey players from around the world came to Vancouver to win a gold medal. The Russian team was filled to the brim with talent and most pundits felt they were most likely to win that medal, but talent wasn’t enough.
    When I facilitate a Project Management training session, I emphasize factors like Roles and Process and how these are essential to  producing a successful team.  A project team filled with technical experts, senior advisors, and community leaders will not be successful without a good game plan and clear definition of roles and communication between them.  As a Project Manager, I need to make sure that I’m managing this team properly and providing the structure necessary to get the most out of each team member.
  4. You have to plan for success – Reaching the Olympics, and winning a medal is the end of a multi-year process. A plan was designed many years ago with numerous milestones to help the athletes take the appropriate steps towards success.
    Unless we want to rely on hoping as our method of preparing to be succesful we need to spend the time to develop a comprehensive plan at the beginning of a project. We need to identify our ultimate goal and then work backwards step-by-step to identify all the milestones and tasks that are needed to achieve that goal. If the plan’s well designed, then the culmination of all those small milestones will almost dramatically increase our chances of being successful. Passion is an essential ingredient – sometimes something as intangible as “passion” is the little ‘extra’ that is needed to achieve success. When it comes down to 1/100th of a second;  when there is perfect skating between two ice dance teams; or when you’re deadlocked in overtime;  sometimes it’s that internal fire burning bright that separates Gold from Silver.
    I believe that as a project manager, you’ve got to have some level of passion for your project and its objectives. Of course, it may be hard to be passionate about implementing a new IT system, but the bottom-line is that you need to have enthusiasm for the project, and be committed to the project  goals.
  5. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things – ultimately, each gold medalist is a human being. They have bills to pay, they get colds, they face heartache and have stomachs full of butterflies. Part of planning for success means taking deliberate steps towards managing all of these day-to-day challenges.
    I’ve worked with small communities and volunteers who have raised buildings and put-on global events. It’s true that with a well thought-out plan, dedication to the plan, and teamwork, we can accomplish great things. I tell all of my clients that the keys to success exist within themselves.  My job as Project Manager is to ensure that a project is designed to leverage their skills and energy, and move them forward to the next milestone.  This idea isn’t quite as clear as the others. Are you saying that ordinary people can  do extraordinary things, so long as they have the right structure in place to support them?
  6. It has to be fun! Can you imagine going to practice and busting your butt every day for years, without having any fun? Even high-performance athletes aren’t machines. We need to take breaks and keep our sanity in check. Our women’s bobsled team took a break and vacationed in California before coming to Vancouver and eventually taking the gold medal.
    When I manage projects, I push my teams as hard as I need to in order to keep the project on track. That said, I am always thinking about how to avoid burning people out, and to keep the relationships on the team upbeat and positive. It can’t just be about the work – I want my team members to enjoy their experience on the project. I feel that this actually results in greater productivity and accountability overall.

I’m sure there are other parallels to be drawn between the Olympics and project management, but these are the ones that have stuck-out for me. What I know for sure is that success on a big stage is an adrenalin rush like no other, and I can’t wait to capture my gold medal at the end of my next project.

What are you doing to make sure you capture gold in your next project? Have a question? Contact me, Will Fong, at 403.263.3385

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