COWBOY PROJECT MANAGER

Project Manager vs. Tombstone

By Mike Aucoin


They have names like ...Bad to the Bone, �Tombstone, �Mission Impossible.

They're the names of rodeo bulls on the bull-riding circuit, but they could just as well be the names of projects.

Bull riding has been called the most dangerous sport and for good reason. A cowboy (willingly) sits bare back on an 1800-pound animal, holding on with nothing but one hand on a rope tied to the bull. The annoyed animal gyrates wildly to throw the irritant off its back. To make things more interesting, as the bull leaves the chute, a helper pulls tightly on a "flank strap" that is cinched around the bull's, ahem, tender parts to make him want to squirm free. As if that were not enough, the cowboy is encouraged to earn more points by jabbing his spurs to the bull's sides to make him buck even more. The poor cowboy must stay on for eight seconds to get a score.

If that doesn't describe the life of a project manager, I don't know what does.

Project managers agree to ride projects that buck wildly and dangerously while barely holding on with one hand. They agree to the terms of the game: ride something that's darn near impossible to ride, on a constricting schedule that makes the team want to squirm free, and then spur the beast to make the ride even more difficult.

Projects, and bull rides, start innocently. While standing in the chute, bulls and projects look pretty tame. So you get on. Seems OK. Suddenly the gate opens, and just then, some stakeholder pulls tightly on that flank strap and that project starts to spin wildly.

With a little luck, the project manager stays on, and just about then, the stakeholders yell for the rider to spur. Go ahead - suck up that major scope change, the reduction schedule, in resources and in budget. Show us that you can really ride, cowboy!

Most of the time, the rider eats a dirt sandwich long before the buzzer sounds. Come to think of it, the percentage of bull rides that are successful is about the same percentage of software projects that are completed successfully. Must be some Grand Law of the Universe there.

Often, the result is a bad wreck, a rodeo term for a seriously painful landing usually followed by the rider getting stomped on or gored by the bull.

Perhaps an even more dreaded situation occurs when a rider gets hung up. If a rider is thrown but can't work his hand free of the bull rope, the poor soul gets dragged around for what seems like an eternity. In a previous job, my company once had a project that was supposed to take two years and eventually took seven. The carnage was sobering. I was grateful to watch that one from the cheap seats.

If you are a project manager, or want to be one, think about your project as an 1800-pound bull named Tombstone and remember the following:

  • Ride within your abilities - Riding the bucking project is harder than it seems. If you are new to project management, feel free to climb on while the project is in the chute, then get off! Ride a mechanical bull to feel what it's like to get thrown. Maybe this will encourage you'll to get some training and start slowly. When you do ride, don't agree to that flank strap (a project with something like a brutal schedule or a high degree of change) until you have several projects behind you.
  • Wear protective equipment - Thankfully, it has become more commonplace for cowboys to wear protective vests and headgear. Do the same with your projects. Develop a thick skin, some personal space and some emotional distance from your project. That way, if you get thrown, it won't hurt so much.
  • Hold on tight �but not too tight - If you get into a bad situation, you'll want to be able to disengage. Sometimes the best thing to do is to shut down a project that is wreaking havoc. But disengaging can also mean that you temporarily let go of a project and gain some perspective to enable you to make better decisions. And if you do decide to bail, be sure to jump really clear of the project.
  • Stay on top of your point of control - Seasoned bull-riders know that they must lean forward to keep their weight over the hand that is holding on. If their center of gravity gets too far back or off-center, they lose control. As a project manager, you need to operate within your locus of control to maintain your balance. Avoid those tempting opportunities to chase irrelevant issues and major scope escalations.
  • Don't spur unless you are really good - Your stakeholders will be encouraging you to make the ride harder, for their own entertainment, of course. If you want to indulge them, fine, go ahead. Just make sure that you are the best damned rider around. And make sure that you have a good orthopedic surgeon and that your insurance is paid up.

The amazing thing is that cowboys ride bulls more than once, and managers agree to ride wild projects after having been thrown before. Maybe it's the lure of the challenge, maybe it's the adrenaline rush of a flirt with death. Maybe it's the promise of applause and earning the title of champion of the rodeo.

Or, maybe it's the strange satisfaction of saying "I rode Tombstone and lived to tell about it".

Have a good ride, cowboy!








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