Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Project Managers and the A team conjuncture.

One of the enduring memes in management is that if we can only get the best practitioners on a problem - the so called A team - then all problems, no matter how difficult will be solved. In the project world the client always insists at the contract signing that they want the vendors "A - team" on the job. The vendor solemnly promises to do just that, "a team". The change from upper to lower case is of course very significant.

But the myth of creating a team of super performers that will deliver success has often been proved false in the field where it can be readily tested: Sports teams.

The history of sports is littered with teams whose performance wasn't even the sum of its parts. In soccer the Real Madrid teams of the mid 2000's, the era of the galacticos, were long on stars and short on results. Everyone wanted the adulation, no one wanted to run hard and defend well.

An example of what happens when you recruit super stars and ignore team chemistry can be found in the movie "the Miracle at Oxford". The movie recounts a true story about what happened to the Oxford boat crew when, in 1987, they decided to steal a march on their rivals, Cambridge, by recruiting top American international calibre rowers for their men's eight.

A slight digression is in order to explain the context of this situation. Every spring since 1856 the universities of Oxford And Cambridge have had a race on the River Thames in the heart of London. Each university puts out a crew in a Racing eight - that means eight rowers and a cox - to race over four and a quarter miles on the winding tidal river complete with bridges, eddies etc. This is in direct contrast to normal International competitions which are held on lakes, are dead straight, a third of the distance, and raced in clearly defined lanes. In other words it is a completely unique race, in a unique, almost eccentric, setting. Plus the race and its rowing community have the weight of decades of tradition on their shoulders.

Into this unique environment, with a coach who has won 10 out of the last 11 races, are transplanted five American world-class rowers, with egos to match. Well it goes wrong, there's a rebellion/ mutiny and they are thrown off the crew. The coach then puts together a crew from the loyal members of the crew plus rowers from the B team. He balances out the strengths of the remaining rowers and in appalling conditions   - it is not unknown for one of the boats to sink - they triumph against what on paper was a better crew.

The learning lessons from this movie are that getting the best in the business does not mean that teamwork will occur. In some cases it will never occur. Super stars have super egos and a sense of entitlement to match. Also a lesser stressed point in the movie is that to make a racing eight fly across the water requires a level of coordination and timing that is easy to state and hard to achieve. A racing eight has its rowers alternately rowing left then right. So if the four rowers who are pulling the right side oars are stronger then the left side rowers then the boat is going to veer sharply to one side. Timing is crucial, all the oars should enter and leave the water at the same time, all the time. Many great rowers cannot row effectively in an eight. So the coach doesn't just have to pick the best rowers, he has to pick the ones that can harmonize best, can last the full course, and he has to place them in the right seat in the boat.

Sounds just like a project team. You need good performers who can work with others, aren't going to behavior like diva's, and who have the capacity to last for the length of the project.

So if you want an entertaining movie, with management lessons, watch Miracle at Oxford. Unless of course youre a Cambridge fan, in which case you know the story already.

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