What Project Managers Can Learn From One Very Successful College Football Coach

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by Dave Wakeman

I’m always looking for a way to tie project management to college football, and the start of football season is a great time to do just that. I went to the University of Alabama, which has been on one of the greatest runs in college football history over the last nine years. This is due in part to the vision of coach Nick Saban.

If you don’t know much about college football and Nick Saban, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with project management. But Saban’s success stems in part from his coaching philosophy, which he calls “The Process.” His reasoning is straightforward, as he once said: “Process guarantees success. A good process produces good results.”

Here are several lessons project managers can learn from coach Saban’s process.

Culture is everything: Every organization has a culture. Some are well thought-out, methodical inventions imprinted through consistent actions and accountabilities. Other organizations, not so much.

At the University of Alabama, “The Process” is at its heart a cultural tool that seeps into every action that every member of the football program takes over the course of the year. Saban is consistent in his discussion of creating a culture that allows his team to focus on the aspects of their “jobs” that create success.

As a manager and leader of your projects, you might be able to deliver the same sort of project culture by clearly stating your expectations for communications, reporting or meetings—or all three.

Regardless of your priorities, take a look at how you can communicate the kind of project culture you want to create.

Success is a process: As leaders, we have to balance two competing interests: the long-term success of our projects and our organization and the short-term tasks involved in delivering us to the long-term outcomes.

One of the big things Saban has done at Alabama is emphasize setting long-term goals for each team and the program, while also consistently focusing his players on the task at hand. This most readily plays out in his insistence that his players focus only on winning the play of the moment, treating each play as its own mission and never looking at the scoreboard.

You might help your teams by setting clear long-term project goals, but then breaking them down into phases with each phase having its own individual stages with a beginning and end. More emphasis should be placed on the specific stage than the overall project.

Communication is key: The image of Saban as a fiery hard-to-please taskmaster may have some validity. But one thing that often goes unnoticed is that he’s typically toughest on his teams when they’re winning and have a tendency to lose focus. When the team is losing a game, he tends to be very encouraging and measured.

As the leader of your team, you can put this idea to work by looking at the way you communicate with your own team and think about what is and what isn’t effective. Maybe you’ll find you’re pushing when you should be nurturing or nurturing when a good push is needed.

Even if you don’t like Alabama, Nick Saban or football, you can and should learn lessons from college football. A great college football team is very similar to a great project team, and a great coach has to be a great project manager.

For your enjoyment, here’s a 60 Minutes TV show profile of University of Alabama’s team from a few years back:

Let me know what you think in the comments! And, most importantly, Roll Tide! 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never don't miss it, sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: September 09, 2015 02:27 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Nick Saban's success speaks for itself, and there's no doubt that there's a major management challenge in leading a team of college kids with the discipline required to win at the highest levels of college sports. It's no wonder that many sports coaches that succeed in their main career go on to have highly successful roles as motivational and leadership speakers.

Nice share

I really like this article and the compare and contrast... I do believe that communication is certainly a very important element successfully achieving goals and leading...

When I read this blog I was reminded of John Wooden's book on leadership. Very similar philosophy

Thanks for all of your comments.

I'm glad you all could see the parallel between what Nick Saban does as a coach and what a successful leader in any organization does.

If I had my choice of attributes that determines success more than others, I would hang it on communications. And, I think that it is one part of Saban's persona that is often overlooked.

Very pertinent contribution, i quite agree on the idea that culture is the most important factor on Project Management. But communication which is the mean to share and hand over all that knowledge is also a key element on Project Management, a field where" stubbornness" is not a bad but a good thing in the character in order to achieve one's goal.

Great Points - Culture/Environment, Steady Process and Communication.

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