6 Project Management Lessons from Baseball

Some of our most popular sayings (“You can’t win ‘em all,” “He really hit a home run that time,” “He was out before he reached First Base,” and “There’s no crying in baseball”) come from, well, baseball. Whether you’ve spent hours in the stands or you don’t know an RBI from HBO, baseball can offer us lessons on life and on project management:Project Management Lessons from Baseball

Lesson 1: Preparation Counts

When you watch a major league baseball game, it can seem like magic (depending on who your home team is). The music is playing, the crowds are madly cheering, the field is groomed, and the players are all in the zone. It seems impossible that they would miss a ball or not make it to the base on time to beat the throw from short.

What you don’t see is all the preparation that goes on behind the scenes.
The spring training scrimmages under the blistering Arizona sun. The thousands of swings in the batting cages. The pulled muscles. The locker room pep talks. What you see during the game is what happens after a lot of hard work getting ready for the season.

Preparation counts. Make sure your project starts off right. Your Project Kick-Off Meeting can set the stage for the entire project. Make sure you have the right people on the field …er, in the room…, and recruit executive stakeholders for the pre-game prep talk. Ask them to focus on what the project means to the organization as a whole and why doing this project is important.

Lesson 2: It’s a Long Season

The Major League Baseball season stretches from April to October, and includes 162 regular league games, not counting Spring Training or playoff games. With each game lasting an approximate 3 hours, that’s a lot of time on the diamond. And as discussed in Lesson 1, even more time is spent off the field. Over the course of the season, before every game, coaches and players review each of the opposing players and look for two key factors: what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses.

Approach your project like an entire season. Throughout the project, assess often and assess early. Identify the obstacles that may be in the way of your project’s success. Then, identify a plan to minimize the risk of those obstacles.

Lesson 3: Slumps Happen

Nine innings includes 54 outs (27 for each team), hundreds of pitches, and dozens of plays, and with all due respect to Yogi Berra, your project “ain’t over until it’s over.”

Every project will encounter some setbacks. A good project manager expects them, plans for them and doesn’t let them affect the attitude of the project team. A few years ago the Colorado Rockies scored nine runs in the bottom of the 9th to win 12-9 over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lesson 4: Play All Nine Innings

The reverse is also true. If your project is moving along like it’s set on auto-pilot, take heed. Anything can happen, and that’s why the game has nine innings. If the outcome was certain, we could all pack up and go home at the bottom of the first.

Keep on top of your project at all times. Make sure your project plans and issues/risks logs are up to date. And don’t neglect the status reports. In addition to helping keep your project sponsors and stakeholders informed, they help keep you on track.

Lesson 5: Review the Statistics

Hidden in the announcer’s box is someone charged with a very special job: Watching each and every pitch thrown, ball hit, and play made, and recording it all in the official scorebook. Then, after the game, the scorekeeper calculates statistics such as batting average, earned-run average, slugging percentage, and a host of other mind-numbingly-precise details.

Not only do these statistics give the announcers something to talk about during the inevitable lulls in the game (“This batter is 0-for-3 against left-handed pitchers with a “t” in their last name on games played on a night when there is a full moon”), they also provide invaluable information for the coaches and the players themselves. Statistics matter in baseball.

They matter in projects, too. Lessons learned from other projects, whether similar or not to your current project, provide valuable bits of information. Review previous project issues logs and closure reports. Speak with the resources to find out what worked well and what didn’t.

Knowing that your clean-up batter always walks the first time up in a home game is useful information, but you have to do something with that knowledge, and review it again and again over time, looking for patterns and trends. You need to know as much about your projects as baseball announcers know about the home team.

Lesson 6: Your Whole Team Plays Better with a Coach Who Knows the Game

Coaches matter. They serve many roles for a baseball team:

  1. They see the big picture. A catcher or first baseman may see the game only from their limited perspective; the coach sees everything on the field and how all the pieces fit together.
  2. They have the wisdom of experience. The average coach has lived through more games than the average player, and they’ve seen things that some players haven’t. They bring that experience to the team.
  3. They are invested in the outcome, but they are in it for the long haul. Just as kids can’t see past the end of the school year, players sometimes can’t see beyond the end of the season. The coach can put things into perspective.
  4. They inspire. Because they care deeply about the players and the game, they are able to connect with the team in a way outsiders cannot. (If you have any doubt of this, just check out some of the famous “locker room” speeches from great sports movies such as “A League of Their Own.”)

Just as you’ve never seen a winning ball team without a coach, you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful project without a strong project manager. Help your players succeed, and you’ll succeed.

Conclusion

From setting an example of how to handle adversity, to teaching us how important it is to take risks, baseball is full of wisdom. Our nation’s favorite pastime offers more than hot dogs and beer (which are also important). By applying the lessons of baseball to your projects, you’ll have a better team and a better outcome to your projects.

And, finally, to quote the movie Major League: “The American Express Card. Don’t steal home without it.”