jim@millikenproject.com 207-808-8878 Our book "Life is a Project: How are you managing?" is now available!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Failing Cult of the Champion

Among the most thrilling events in the annual NCAA basketball tournament is the  inevitable emergence of unexpectedly heroic effort that threatens or even overturns high-seeded teams. Someone bursts into inspired play beyond all personal precedent, and energized teammates join in to perform equally over their heads and overwhelm the less-dynamic favorites.

Presumptive national champion Kansas University was shocked by Northern Iowa (Northern WHO?) in the 2010 tournament. The hero was Ali Farokhmanesh, who played like a demonic genius in the game, polishing off the 69-67 upset with a three-pointer and a couple of free throws in the final seconds.

That’s why they play the game, and that’s why we watch.

What makes for great entertainment, though, tends to improperly influence our assumptions about the general conduct of human affairs, including those difficult and stressful activities called “projects.”

In fact, you can look at most group processes and observe that nothing really happens until someone, officially designated or not, steps up and creates movement. Pending that, things tend to slosh around disjointedly, perhaps moving grudgingly along in response to official prodding. No recipe for high achievement in difficult circumstances.

In project management, there is a designated occupant of the catbird seat: The project manager. When project managers buy in to this "champion" concept, they volunteer for eventual exhaustion and frustration. That’s a shame because we really need them.

So, without dismissing the importance of the project manager’s key role, it is vital to unplug the spotlight and shine some attention on the corners of the project operation.

Teamwork Trumps Heroics

The fundamental reality of organized behavior is that the ultimate outcome – good or bad – is not determined by anyone so much as by everyone.

The project management graveyard is full of headstones, some of them monumental, memorializing leaders who worked to exhaustion and ultimate burnout in heroically carrying difficult efforts on their backs. As reluctant, overbooked and undermotivated team members did not invest adequate effort in the project, the project manager typically picked up the slack and personally pulled it through.

Any single project can succeed on the substance in this scenario, but as a policy the approach uses up an organization’s best people and establishes a culture of noncommitment among the general workforce.

Studies have shown that, while individual champions truly accomplish wondrous feats, the champs simply cannot deliver consistent high performance by their organizations. And when the champions are gathered into teams, their collective outcome doesn’t measure up to that of well-led teams composed of ordinary people.

In short, an organization that regularly conducts successful projects recognizes that it must establish the principle that collective excellence is made up of the multiple products of individual effort. There is no faceless, abstract organization. Instead, there are continuing team efforts by individuals who personally commit to working individually and collectively to accomplish specific quality outcomes.

     One vital component of the “everyone” referred to in the first paragraph is senior management, the individuals who have the authority to establish and affect projects, and who control the resources required to make the projects work. The resources most prominently include the middle managers and individual contributors whose participation and/or support are essential to the project.

Those members of the organization must respond to the directives of those in authority as they act on priorities in their work.

When the senior managers and executives fully understand and believe in the project, they make the decisions that empower the project manager and obligate everyone involved to commit the effort the project requires. This must continue through the multiple bramble patches encountered by such initiatives.

It's Not Personal

The project manager’s central focus, then, is not primarily that of a person conducting a direct personal assault on the matter at hand. The underlying thrust must be to negotiate the entire spectrum of understanding, agreement and effort that builds and maintains a fully functional team at every level of the sponsoring organization.

Without such involvement and support, nothing will work. A championship way of life is a shared challenge. You get to put the winning shot in the hole because many people were together in getting the game to that point. 


  1. Jim, we all know that projects, and the world of work in general, are too complex for one leader to do it all. Yet leaders still persist in trying. Leaders and teams should define and delegate roles, and hold each other accountable for letting the others do their designated parts.

  2. You're right, Susan. The basic need of leadership is to share the load -- the responsibility. Get people to accept and fulfill tasks that contribute to the outcome.
    So the leader's key skill is that of persuasion, getting the team members to personally commit to working to achieve their own share of the mutual outome.