Horse Racing and Project Team Parallels

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff.
Saturday’s (May 18, 2013) excitement in the USA’s Preakness horse race made me think of the project parallels. Those are the similarities between the players in the horse-racing “sport,” and in successful projects. Each player fills an essential role in both cases, but it is the integration of all the roles that makes for success. And still, unanticipated events can cause even a “sure thing” to fail. I am not a horse racing enthusiast. But, I will admit to being drawn in this year to the latest “Triple Crown” contender (a horse winning the big three racing events).

Horse Racing Roles

racingIt is the Horse that wins the race, right? Well, not so fast (so to speak). A fast horse, in most cases, is a key to success, but the Jockey has a key role as well. That role includes deep understanding and communication with the horse. It also includes the in-race tactics that require instantaneous judgements when situations change.

This weekend, Orb, the “sure bet,” Kentucky Derby-winning horse was hemmed in at the rail. Neither he nor his jockey could navigate to the outside, where he could regain his stride. Even the most talented jockey and a stellar horse cannot always assure success.

Of course, the Owner also has a key role in success, ranging from establishing a winning strategy, to buying or breeding a horse with potential. The Owner provides the best-possible training and preparation, making the key decisions about how to lead up to the main events. He or she often applies their own experience, and also seeks and acts upon the advice of others. And of course, celebrates the win, and collects the winnings. Or, accepts defeat, when it occurs, and learning lessons to apply in later events.

And what about the Horse Trainer? What is his or her role in this adventure of horse racing? Clearly, the trainers are another key to success. In the weeks leading up to this race we heard as much about the trainers, their opinions and their approaches, as about the horses. And we heard more about horses and trainers, than we heard about the jockeys or owners. But the winning team is the one that has high competence in all four roles–plus the luck of the draw–needed to become winners.

Project Team Parallels

So now, dear readers, some may be wondering what all this has to do with project teams! And some have already answered the not-yet-asked question: What are the corresponding roles of each of the above in the winning project team?

Fill in mentally, or on a print-out, if you are the rigorous type, your answers:

  • The Horse, that really does all the work, corresponds to, in projects, your:
  • The Jockey, who leads the horse, and changes tactics, when needed, is your:
  • The Owner, who strategizes, funds and celebrates the result; this is your:
  • The Trainer, who prepares the horse for the best possible outcome, is your:

Of course, many of our readers are still a furlong or two ahead of me. Still, let us see if we can add a bit more value to your quick and insightful response. The Horse, of course, is the Project Team; they do all the work. They exert the extreme and needed effort at the right time to win. And sometimes they need to be guided back on track, or helped to change tactics when the situation changes.

That guiding and change of tactics comes from … the Project Manager. And just as there are different styles of jockeys, there are different styles of project manager. Different horses may benefit from different jockey style. Different project teams can benefit from different styles of project manager–and leadership styles–especially across a range of industries.

The role of the owner is an easy selection: This is your Project Sponsor–your key stakeholder. And some horses are managed by a consortium–individuals who work together to fund a successful racing initiative. Similarly, your Sponsor group might be a Steering Committee representing different interests, with an Executive Sponsor or Committee Chair. And, just as with the owner, this person or group funds the initiative and assures that it achieves the desired business benefits.

Who Is The Equivalent Of The Horse Trainer?

Some of you may find it a challenge to discern the project-equivalent role of the horse trainer. This challenge might exist because there are several entities that may fill that role in your projects. Your PMO (Project Management Office) can serve as a great trainer, if its participants are coaches, rather than cops. We thought we purged the old PMO as cops mentality during the 1980s, but I still see too many that follow that obsolete model.

Or, your horse trainer parallel might be the external trainers or coaches that you engage to provide an external perspective. They may be specialists in the type of challenges you are currently experiencing. Some owners/sponsors fail to realize when it is cheaper to use outside talent rather than blunder your way through. But most of us can learn smarter practices from horse races and projects.

And of course, just like with the horse racing parallel, it is not enough to have just one star player: Both in horse racing and in successful projects, all the roles must be filled with talented, dedicated, high-performing participants. You are as strong as your weakest link in your full team.

Scalability of the Parallels

Without taking this simple analogy to an extreme, we will acknowledge that every project is not a world-changing event. Similarly, every horse race is not a Triple Crown opportunity. And yet, how do these horse racing teams prepare for championships? Simple: They train for them by working their way up through simpler, less-competitive events. This allows owners and trainers to judge the horse’s potential, while giving the horse a chance to run at the front of the pack.

The right experience is one of the greatest contributors to competence, performance and success.

Such a way of “working upwards” helps all roles to develop confidence. Indeed, some horses do not make the cut. They “top out” before reaching their potential. This may happen because of low talent, poor training,  poor riding or poor luck—uncertainty applies in many contexts.

It is the same with projects. Many team members start out with smaller projects, or with “bit player” roles in larger ones. The best project talents will grow into increasing responsibilities and increasingly challenging projects. But here is a departure from our analogy–a place where it breaks down. The best Project Managers most often grow into that role as team members who earn ever-increasing successes. But I have never seen a horse graduate to jockey. Project Managers have an unfair advantage in this review of parallels.

One Winner, Many Losers?

One could say that this analogy also breaks down if we take it too far, because in a horse race, there is only one winner. In a portfolio of enterprise projects, there can be many winners. But truly, in a horse race, there are indeed many winners: First, you have win, place and show. Each are “ïn the money.” And, as we see with Oxbow, sometimes the surprise winner pays everyone who bet on the long-shot a very nice return on investment. Those bettors are also big winners. In a fair race, there are many winners.

And, similarly, the executive team that is managing a portfolio of projects, is placing bets on their talent. They are the ones who are delivering each horse’s, oops sorry, each team’s results. Of course, this is also a race; why else do you think project time is so important? And your executive team has a role that is very much like the business case of the racing owners. They are keeping this nearly-legendary, entertaining horse racing event alive. They continue to engage spectators, the media, advertisers, and related suppliers.

An interesting evidence of their success is a recurring counterpoint. During Triple Crown races, some people believe horse racing to be dangerous to the horses, and not in their best interests. Just as in projects, we must respect and respond to the opinions, demands and needs of all stakeholders, not just those we agree with.

A Take-Away

A take-away you might gain from this article is that one can find project management parallels in many other aspects of life. We encourage you to do so. If you indeed do find you can do so, this is further proof of our oft-proclaimed assertion: Project Management is a core competence for living. Are you competent as a PM?

Your Comments?