Par 3s and Project Management

Par 3s and Project Management

I saw an interesting quote from golfer Phil Mickelson today.

If I ask anybody to think of their favorite golf course and favorite hole, it's either a par 3 under 150 yards or a driveable par 4.1

In other words, people want to succeed. They don't necessarily want success handed to them, but they enjoy situations where they have a reasonable chance of success.2

Yet golf course designers are creating increasingly difficult courses, replete with holes that only the best players, the pros and top amateurs, have any hope of conquering. The rest of us slog through, not worrying about par, hitting too many shots with our biggest (and hardest to hit) clubs in the hopes of finally getting somewhere close to the green. We rejoice when we hit the occasional wonderful shot, we enjoy the company of old and new-made friends on the course, and we get some vitamin S (for sun).

Project management can be like a 150-yard par 3, or a 600-yard par 5. Think of a project manager as the course designer.

The 600-Yard Project Manager

I've worked with project managers over the years who thought their projects were supposed to be 600-yard holes. That's the kind of par-5 hole where most amateurs would be happy with an 8 and thrilled with a 6.  Hit your driver, hope the ball's not off in the woods, then keep whacking away with a 3-wood until, four strokes later (including two flubbed shots where the ball rolls 50 yards because you're trying too hard), you can actually see the hole you're aiming for.

It's a slog.

And the project manager likes it that way. It's predictable - no one will be happy. There will be tears and no shortcuts. He or she will see on every shot how much better you could have done (and in the worst case will delight in pointing it out to you... even though you already know how much better you could have done!)

The project manager is thrilled because the hole (the project) is in control. It dominates your decisions and limits your choices.

On the other hand, there are project managers who want their projects to be 150-yard par 3s. One good - not even great, just good - shot, and you're on the green. And there are multiple ways to reach the green, too. Put the ball in the air and land it on the green, or hit it low and let it bounce and roll up onto the green. Then an outstanding putt even gets you birdie, but even if you miss it, even miss the next putt too, you know you had a shot at it. You almost succeeded, and you had fun trying. Next time you'll control the hole, not vice versa.

You had options, different ways to approach the hole. You could do what made sense for your skills and that day's confidence level; the hole (a/k/a the project and the project manager) didn't prescribe your course. The goal was the same, and it was for once a reachable goal.

That's the kind of project manager you want to work with again, just as you can't wait to play that hole again the next time you return to the course.

Work Is Not a Sport

In this analogy, the project is the ground before there is a golf course. It's hilly or not, sandy or rich soil, treed or open. The project manager can decide what kind of course to create given the land she's working with.

In sports, it's good to challenge the participants a certain amount - though not to absurdity, or the participants won't play (or won't enjoy it if they do). A weekend softball player might fantasize about batting against 100-MPH pitcher Justin Verlander, but he doesn't want to stand in there in real life.

Work has its own challenges. Those challenges in the end may strengthen us, and they afford us the opportunity to stand out.

As a project manager, don't create additional challenges. The people working on the project have tasks they need to complete. Don't add to the challenge. It's not a sport.

Remember Phil Mickelson. Strive for the 150-yard par 3.

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1For non-golfers: A 150-yard par 3 is a hole where almost any amateur golfer between the ages of, say, 12 and 70 (a so-called "bogey golfer") can reach the green in a single shot. A driveable par 4 is a hole of 275-300 yards where the pros can hit the green in one shot and a bogey golfer can reach it in two. In other words, these are easy holes where the pros have a good shot at birdie (one shot under par), good amateurs will get some birdies and a bunch of pars, and even not-very-good amateurs have a reasonable chance to make par.

2My two favorite holes on my regular golf course are, as it happens, a 147-yard par 3 and a 298-yard par 4. I'm not a very good golfer, but I par these holes about half the time. More importantly,  I usually feel, as I approach them, that I will make par. I don't feel that way about the other holes on the course. I've parred them all at one time or another, but I hope rather than expect to pull off the consecutive good shots plus and accurate putts that parring these more difficult holes requires.