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Are we stifling our project managers?

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What are the differences between a rally driver and a project manager? They both work under considerable time pressures, with constrained resources, to deliver a defined set of objectives within an emergent environment. But do the similarities end there? 

A rally driver navigates a course where the road conditions evolve as the race and environment unfolds; sometimes the road is not well-defined, and the driver has to navigate a route across deserts or open countryside. We expect the rally driver to be suitably qualified and experienced for the role and to apply their expertise with skill and agility.

If we apply typical project management methods to such an event, then it is likely that the car would be loaded up with instruction manuals; the roadside would be littered with mandatory and cautionary signage; and the driver would be forced to stop after every sector for the assurance community to undertake a series of checks to make sure that all is well.

In the real world

The driver doesn’t always have the luxury of time to read all the signs, and these signs quickly degenerate into distractions that exist in the periphery vision as the driver keeps focused on the road. Rather than the assurance team stopping the project to pause for an inspection, their race team equivalent is reviewing real time data and understanding what they can do to enable the driver to perform at the best of their ability. 

Furthermore, performance is not judged on one race, it is against a series of events where expertise continues to develop. The race team constantly review the wide range of information about track conditions, weather, car performance and competitor performance. They also require analytics on where the car and driver may not have performed as well as could be expected so that adjustments can be made for the future.


What the driver often needs is information on how others have driven along the route, sector times and stats, where they have been able to make up time, feedback on real time performance of the car, emergent road conditions, where accidents have occurred, along with their consequences. The remainder is left to the discretion of the driver and the navigator. After all, they are experienced rally drivers and appropriately qualified to drive the car, although they may be unfamiliar with the specific circumstances of the track. The track is constantly evolving and weather conditions can change in an instant. 

What does this mean for our profession?

Is it time for us to challenge how we structure our projects to enable the project team to perform to their full potential?

Enforcement vs insights

I would argue that we need to evolve our approach, away from enforcement, towards providing the project management team with the insights that enable them to perform their job effectively. By understanding how others have performed along a similar journey, identifying potential pitfalls, leveraging experience of those who have gone before and interpreting real time data.

This isn’t just a case of learning lessons. It would be impossible to learn everything about all possible situations, but we need to use available data to provide insights of what to ‘keep on the radar’, and understand what action needs to be taken. As the data set grows the insights become increasingly more powerful. 

But don’t we already have these insights?

Hundreds of papers and articles exist on the factors that influence project success [1,2], but the evidence indicates that we largely ignore them.

There is a significant ‘human factors’ component on why people ignore project guidance; like the ‘knowing-doing gap’ when it comes to alcohol consumption, smoking cessation and tackling obesity. The key is making insights relevant, personal and ensuring that they illustrate a possible future with examples that ring true.

Junior rally drivers

Not all rally drivers are sufficiently experienced to compete at international level, and it is important that more junior drivers are able to hone their skills in a safe environment. A balance needs to be struck between training, coaching, assurance and leveraging the experience of others. I don’t believe we have managed to resolve this conundrum yet.

New project

If an organisation has never delivered a particular type of project before, how does it know which elements of the process it needs to prioritise? The answer lies within the body of experience, segmented to the specific challenges of the project.  But history has shown that systems and methods alone are unlikely to resolve the problem satisfactorily. Although leveraging insights from experience may help the project team, project managers do not work in isolation.

They are surrounded by governance, assurance and processes, all of which can assist or constrain progress. It is important that an organisation understands how experience influences the future and whether an intervention is required at project, programme or portfolio level. Moving towards a culture of extracting small margins, when currently a lot of organisations are unable to even identify and quantify the margins, is potentially business critical.

I acknowledge that the analogy is not perfect, but I hope it helps P3M professionals to reflect on the correct balance of an ever-expanding set of processes and governance versus recruiting the right people and enabling them to perform to the best of their ability.

An untapped resource

Project and programme data is an untapped source of insights that will grow exponentially as we get to grips with a wide array of tools emerging from the data science community

Final thoughts           

There are a lot of similarities between rally driving and project management. Are your methods enabling the project team to win races (safely) or slowing them down, by forcing them into ‘box ticking mode’, rather than leveraging insights gained from experience. Is it time for a re-think?


In view of this, I have established a free event called the London Project Data and Analytics Meetup, hosted in a great facility called CodeNode, where we bring together practitioners from project delivery and data science to cross fertilise knowledge and skills.

We’d be delighted if you could join us and we can work together to deliver improvements in what is at the very cutting edge of our profession. I’ll also be sharing further insights in an webinar, with Merv Wyeth from the Benefits Management SIG, entitled Project Data Analytics – How do we leverage experience of project delivery? on 20 March 2018.

[1] APM Conditions for Project Success

[2] Ultimate guide to project critical success factors



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  1. Peter Barham
    Peter Barham 27 February 2018, 09:54 AM

    Excellent article - thank you. Nice to be compared to a rally driver, as I always wanted to be one, but also a good analogy. A thought-provoking nudge for what we should do and get on with doing. Well referenced supporting data that also reminds of places projects typically go wrong and what we should focus on.

  2. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 07 March 2018, 10:59 AM

    Good analogy Martin. I believe that the processes most projects use are far too inflexible, and are the main cause of long durations, high costs, and unreliability. The wrong methods are much more responsible for poor perforance than the individual capabilities of the project manager and the project team. But what is our knee jerk reaction to poor performance? More training? Process Audits? Add another Control Gate and Approvals? All of which point the finger at the people. Most people want to do a good job, so if most projects have problems, the issue is much more likely to be the processes and systems we use rather than the people. That's how we see driving. 99% of us can drive (on a road, not a rally) without an accident, so most accidents are down to people. But if 50% of journeys resulted in an accident, we would look at the "system". A good system is designed to be use by normal people. Our project management processes seem to need Super Heros!

  3. Simon Harris
    Simon Harris 13 July 2018, 05:44 PM

    Thanks for this - Twice this week your name has been mentioned to me! The words here triggered a whole host of relevant sources. One was Pfeffer and Sutton, another was O'Beng's 4 quadrants. The main two where Cynefin and my own analogy of many years - that of the taxi-driver. The taxi driver has only peripheral interest in the destination and the passenger's benefits start after the PM is finished. The passenger rarely checks their own safety is cared for but if they do they are disproportionate in demands and parsimonious about resultant costs. My major though is you reflect what in my words is the gross mismatch between available pm guidance and required equity performance. The issues start with an historical view of project management in engineering based command and control and converge (clash! crash into?) the nature of the world as an emergent (VUCA) environment - back to cynefin but better yet Clausowitz & Von Moelke's teachings and Complex Adaptive System and Leadership as inspiration. Ciao - Simon