What Can Golf Teach Us About Project Management?

Project Management Lessons from GolfGolf has been described in many ways, from “a good walk spoiled” (Mark Twain), to “the most fun you can have without taking your clothes off” (Chi Chi Rodriguez, one of golf’s great legends). Regardless of how you feel about golf, or how much knowledge you have of the game, the basic principles of the game are clear: You take a club and try to hit a small, white ball into a hole some distance away in as few strokes as possible. Along the way, you’ll probably need to avoid hazards like sand traps, trees, and ponds, but eventually you’ll sink the ball and move on to the next hole.

The basic principles of project management can seem similarly straightforward: You take some people (preferably smart) and complete the project. There’s a general assumption that you will need some time to complete the tasks, some meetings with your project team, and a budget to purchase what you need, but ultimately you will “get it done.”

While both may look fairly simple from the outside, any golfer or project manager will likely agree that the devil is in the details – and those details can make or break the success of your game or project.

Here are some of the other similarities I’ve noticed between these two disciplines:

1. Process Matters

Golf and project management are both very methodical disciplines based largely on repeatable, adaptive processes. In golf, the primary process is the swing. The golf swing is what advances the game. Strategy, calculation, and equipment are all important, but in the end it is the swing that moves the ball off the tee and towards the hole. It’s no big surprise then that golfers work on their swing constantly, many spending hours at the driving range to perfect the process and make it repeatable time and time again.

Project managers’ “swing” is a project management framework. A solid framework provides a consistent and repeatable process for managing projects. Like great golfers, the best project managers are those who are constantly refining and honing their skill with these processes.

At the driving range, a golfer may try to make each swing identical, but she knows that once she’s out on the golf course, her technique will need to adapt to the weather and obstacles. Similarly, each project is different and will require a slightly different approach to manage effectively, so project managers must read the conditions and keep their processes flexible.

2. Select the Right Tools

Since each shot (or project) is different, a golfer (or project manager) will need a variety of specialized tools at his disposal. In golf, the player has a set of clubs, all different, and all designed to hit the ball in a different way or of various distances. The driver, for example, is designed to propel the ball as far down the fairway as possible, ideally going hundreds of yards. When the ball is only a few feet from the hole, however, this club wouldn’t be appropriate – you’d want to use the putter instead.

The project manager also has a set of tools, such as templates for charters, project plans, resource rosters, issues lists, and a variety of other documentation. Just as a golfer has to gauge each shot independently and choose the right club based on the variables on the golf course, a project manager must be able to gauge which tools will be the most appropriate and effective at each stage of their project.

3. Rely on Skills And Experience

Physical tools like clubs and documentation are important, but not as critical as the practiced skills of their wielder. I could use Tiger Woods’s clubs for a round of golf and not make par on a single hole. The same goes for the documentation and organizational assets of the project manager. It’s the intangibles of any endeavor – the experience, practice, and a good dose of natural skill – that makes the project manager (and Tiger) successful.

4. Focus on the Goal

Understanding your goal is the next critical success factor. The golfer has it easier than the project manager in that he can see the green and the pin in the hole (in most cases), and there is always a map of the course at the golfer’s disposal. Based on the distance, obstacles, and curve of the course, the golfer must determine how to move the ball closer to the hole, while avoiding bunkers and water hazards. He may hit the drive off the tee straight towards the hole, or know he needs to angle one way or another to avoid an obstacle.

Likewise, project managers need to determine the layout of their course before starting so that they know the appropriate tools to use to move their project down the proverbial fairway. Understanding your course allows you to choose the correct tool and avoid potential sand traps.

Just like a game of golf, projects have a beginning and end, with everything in between a fluid mixture of great drives, missed putts, and hazards. But with some skill and a good set of tools, both can be navigated to a successful conclusion.