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What college football can teach you about project management

GettyImages-517875398Football is the most popular sport in America, and according to a recent Gallup survey, more than half of us are college football fans.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Americans love football. It brings us together as much as it tests our rivalries. We tailgate, paint our faces and crowd into stadiums and onto couches. Every season is different from the last, making us hold our breath to the very end.

If you’re a college football fan, you’re probably feeling twinges of anticipation — and nervousness — this week. It’s an exciting time, and you’re no doubt hoping your team comes out on top.

But football is more than just a game. If you look closely, it can teach you a thing or two about valuable business skills. You can find players deploying some of the most difficult-to-master project management tactics out on the gridiron.

Here’s how last year’s National Championship contenders succeeded — or failed — at implementing key project management skills, and how you can learn from them even before the season’s first snap.

A solid contingency plan can save a project

Last year, the University of Georgia’s season did not get off to a good start. Star quarterback Jacob Eason was injured in the first quarter of the first game of the season. He was removed from play, but Georgia had a backup plan: a freshman quarterback. The situation wasn’t ideal for the Bulldogs, but it worked. Jake Fromm had spent the pre-season training with the team, so he came in strong. Georgia didn’t miss a beat, and Fromm led the team to the National Championship game.

It’s easy to ignore your project’s potential risks and obstacles during the planning phase (i.e., pre-season), but it’s vital you come up with a contingency plan early on that addresses common project obstacles, such as budget constraints or unexpected delays. Creating a plan B can help mitigate the damage if something unexpected occurs. Start by identifying potential risks and determine how likely these issues are to affect your project. Establish how you will address the obstacles and take steps to prevent them. If the worst happens, be ready to implement your contingency plan.

Good communication is key to every team’s success

The University of Alabama had yet another fantastic football season last year, but a single poorly played game almost did the Crimson Tide in. In arguably their biggest game of the year, Alabama faced off against the Auburn Tigers. And they lost. A contributing factor was a series of fumbled snaps. The center did not know when to snap the ball to the quarterback, and it was all due to a lack of communication.

Even the strongest teams can fall apart if teammates don’t talk to one another, and it’s your job as the project manager to lead the conversation. But talking alone isn’t effective if no one understands what you’re trying to tell them.

  • Keep communication lines open, transparent and consistent. Be honest about your project’s goals and share your expectations with the team.
  • Be available for any questions your team may have. Encourage them to ask questions if they need more information or clarity at any point in the project. Check in with your team, too. Ask them how the project is moving along and what you can do to alleviate any pressure points.
  • Remember, communication is a two-way street, and project managers should not be the only ones talking. Listen to the input your teammates share. Hear their concerns and ideas and answer their questions thoughtfully.

Take time to soak up conversations and engage with your team members and stakeholders. When people feel heard, they feel valued. Your project will not only benefit from it, but your work relationships will too.

Accountability starts with you

When a football team fails to perform as expected, it’s often the coach who shoulders the blame. Alabama’s head coach, Nick Saban, took that rule to heart, making the tough decision to remove his star quarterback from the game when the Crimson Tide started falling behind in the Championship game. Freshman Tua Tagovailoa came into play. Despite the backlash, Saban took responsibility for the move and praised Tagovailoa for leading the team to victory, overcoming the Bulldogs in overtime.

After the hard loss, University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart remarked, “we didn’t finish when we had to,” making no excuses for his team’s loss and taking responsibility for not pulling through. Instead of placing blame elsewhere, he looked ahead, reevaluated what worked and what didn’t and vowed to push on next season.

Why did both coaches take responsibility for their team’s shortcomings? Because it’s their job to lead their team to success.

And it’s your responsibility to do the same for your project. In an office environment, you’re accountable for your work. While some mistakes may not be directly your fault, it’s ultimately your responsibility to address them. Taking ownership of errors can make you a better project manager, but only if you learn from them and take steps to keep them from happening again. It’s your job to get the team moving in the right direction so they can take home the trophy.

Regardless of whom you root for, this college football season is poised to be the best yet. While only one school will earn the national title, your team can be successful year-round if you implement what you learn from the game.

Allison Carter Fanney, Communications Manager — Tax, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

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