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Jan 25

Block and Tackle Project Management

I recently had a meeting with a prospective client that asked me to describe my project management style, and to his surprise, my response was that I consider myself a “block and tackle” project manager.  The answer seemed to have caught him off guard for a minute or two, and opened the door for me to elaborate on my comment.  While I do stand 6’ 6” tall and played offensive line in high school football, my notion of “block and tackle” project management is not to suggest a rough, relentless style.  Additionally, my use of the term is not the typical buzz phrase that may even cause some to roll their eyes in referring to “the easy stuff” on a project.  However, while the quarterback is considered the offensive leader on the field, I personally believe an offensive lineman has many characteristics of a project manager.  So with that in mind, here are some of the thoughts about “block and tackle” project management that I shared with the prospective client:

Clear a Path for Your Teammates

When I serve as Project Manager for a particular initiative, I don’t view the project resources as working “for” me, but rather “with” me.  The notion of working as a project team grows from the fact that no individual has the skill set, expertise, and/or time to effectively accomplish the task at hand.  The team, therefore, is made up of a variety of skill sets, perhaps even specialties, and usually a deadline by which the work needs to be accomplished.

The same is true in football.  We’re all teammates, but have different skills as members of the team.  When I take on the “block and tackle” project management mentality, I take into consideration that there are others on my team that have very valuable skills, and my role is in part to can help ensure they have as clear a path as possible to accomplish their individual tasks and make forward progress.  Typically in my case the “skill players” might be data architects, system designers, server administrators – all roles that I have familiarity with, but not the detailed level of skill or expertise to perform myself.  By comparison, what skills can I as a project manager bring to the table?  Planning, scheduling, budgeting, communication, risk assessment and issue resolution to name a few.  Focusing on those tasks, the blocking and tackling for our team, plays a tremendous role in helping to make the skill players successful.

Watch for the Blitz

During the football game, it’s a third-and-long situation, and your quarterback is most likely looking to throw a pass.  The defense, in an effort to pressure him, is likely to blitz and try to sack him, or at least make a bad pass.  As an offensive lineman, you’re trained to anticipate that scenario and proactively do what you can to prevent the risk of a sack from occurring.

The same is true for a project manager.  Part of your role must include having the wherewithal to look ahead at scenarios that may unfold during the project, understand the risk and impact of not reacting, and then take proactive steps to mitigate the risks as best as possible.  The absence of this skill can put the success of the entire team in jeopardy.

Win as a Team

When you are an offensive lineman, you eventually learn that you are not in the spotlight role on the team, and highly unlikely to be the hero of any given game.  Personal accolades are few and far between, and the skill players are far more likely to be named the game’s MVP.  Therefore, as an offensive lineman, you understand that it is not about you as an individual player, but that the number one goal is to make the team successful and win the game.  You know you can’t win the game alone, and you are very dependent on the skill positions to play as well as possible.  Good project managers fall into the same category.  The team meets the client’s expectations, not the project manager alone.  The team completes the project on time and on budget, not just the project manager.  Being a successful project manager means having successful team members – and you succeed or fail together.

I think the client liked what I had to say and how I described by project management style.  It would be an interesting and challenging project that would include subject matter experts from within the company, process consultants, and systems architects / developers.  They represent a number of skill position players for the initiative, and hopefully I will be able to contribute as well.  My client contact invited me back to meet with some of his colleagues that I would be working with, so all the signs look positive at the moment.  In the meantime, I’ll be reviewing their playbook to make sure I can be effective as soon as I’m called into the game.

The following originally appeared in January 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.