How does an outfielder catch a fly ball? He - or she - runs to the place where the ball will be when it re-approaches the earth.
How do successful project managers stay atop their projects? The same way.
(I promise I'll lay off the baseball metaphors for a bit after this article.)
Over the years, there have been various studies by scientists trying to understand how outfielders track a fly ball. It's not as as easy as good outfielders make it seem. One study had all sorts of diagrams purporting to demonstrate, via calculus and infinitesimals, that at each instant the outfielder is measuring the angle of open sky against the trajectory of the ball and running based on that angle.
For example, in the diagram (which should be in three dimensions rather than two, but my graphics skills don't go that far), a fly ball is hit to left-center field (brown dashed line). The center fielder takes various sights of the ball, converting in his head angles a), b), c), and d) to define a path to converge with the ball at point e) - before it hits the ground.
Note two things. First, the ball itself follows a curving trajectory. As any outfielder or even fan can tell you, balls hit to left of center curve farther left, and balls hit to right of center curve farther right. So not only is the visual angle changing because the ball is moving and the fielder is also moving (to his right) toward where the ball will wind up, the angle is changing because the ball doesn't follow a straight line.
And second, the outfielder takes a curved path.
What's the shortest distance between two points? Yup. Not a curved path.
Any good outfielder will tell you this analysis is wrong. Even mediocre outfielders who've played for a time can tell you this is wrong. After you play long enough, you recognize in a few milliseconds - based on the pitch location, the swing, any wind, the initial look at the ball, and the sound it makes coming off the bat which takes a fraction of a second to travel a few hundred feet to the outfield - exactly where the ball will land. You know how much it will curve away from you (or toward you, were you the left rather than center fielder in this diagram). Good outfielders can take one look, race for where the ball will come down and be accurate to within a few feet without ever looking at the ball again!
They run in a straight line based not on where the ball is but where the ball will be.
Project Management and Where the Ball Will Be
Good project managers, too, take a straight line to where the ball will be.
In other words, when a problem arises, they're doing more than interpolating angles based on their current view of the problem.
There are project management equivalents of pitch location, swing, wind, first look, and "crack of the bat." A project manager should be thinking, ahead of any "pitch," What can go wrong? What can happen? If it does happen, how should we - the team and the PM - act and react? What can we do to prevent it from happening, or minimize its damage should it happen? What are the cost of these mitigating acts, and is the cost worthwhile? (In other words, don't spend $10 mitigating a problem that will cost only$5 if it occurs.)
I think most people, by the time they're managing their second project, recognize that they need to do more than just react to problems.
So Why Are So Many Project Managers Reactive?
Most know better, at least the second time around.
But they're swamped. They're buried in both high-value work and administrivia, a/k/a waste. They are so busy they don't have time to plan. They are so pressured they don't take time to stop and smell the potential problems.
Tomorrow's potential problem seems less of a priority than today's crisis... or yesterday's still-unresolved disaster. They move rapidly from crisis to crisis - perhaps taking a straight line between them, but never figuring out in advance where the next crisis will come from... or how to prevent it from coming at all.
Lesson One of the right path to the ball, then, is to focus on the future as well as the present. Learn to say "No," or "Not right now," or "I'm not going to revisit the past (until Delivery and Evaluation)." Stop running; start breathing and thinking. Of course crises will occur that require immediate, full-time attention... but just as not every case is a bet-the-company matter, not every crisis is project-determinative. And very few of those are project-determinative-in-the-next-five-minutes.
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