Project Management

Getting in the Way of Peak Performance

From the Strategic Project Management Blog
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As an "accidental" project manager, it's very satisfying to contribute to the project management community online with anectdotes and stories I've picked up from my own experience. I hope you enjoy our daily conversation.

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"[T]here have been doping scandals, bribery scandals and officiating scandals, many of them fully emerging only years after the fact," writes Ken Belson for the New York Times. "The latest Olympic scandal—involving shuttlecocks and dumped badminton matches—was pretty much hiding in plain sight."

Wednesday, four women's doubles teams, including two teams from South Korea, a team from China, and a team from Indonesia, were disqualified for intentionally trying to lose their matches. "The eight players were found to have tried to lose their matches intentionally, apparently because they had determined that a loss would allow them to play a weaker oponent in the next round," writes Belson.

Pulling up a YouTube video of the events in question, I couldn't believe my eyes. How does something like this happen in the Olympics? Unfortunately, for Olympic badminton, it doesn't sound like it's that unusual. "Badminton officials introduced a preliminary round at the Olympics this year so that each team could play at least three times and not risk traveling thousands of miles only to be eliminated in the first match," continues Belson. "But athletes and coaches have always looked for any available advantage, including throwing a match to save energy or to face and easier opponenet in the next round."

Why am I writing about Olympic badminton? I think it teaches us something about human nature that we need to consider as we lead project teams.

It appears that a flaw in the rules gave these teams an incentive to lose. The opportunity to advance to an easier round overcame any desire to compete at their best. Are there practices in your organization that incentivize poor performance? Most of the time, it's likely not as blatant as the latest Olympics fiasco, but are there accepted project management and leadership practices that hinder performance?

What would cause a competitor who had likely prepared for years to compete at the Olympics to humiliate herself and debase their event in such a way? Unfortunately, "The notion that players who have trained for years to get to the Olympics would willingly throttle back has reopened a fierce debate in the world of badminton, which for years has bubbled with accusations about well-timed withdrawls and suspiciously sloppy play," writes Belson

"And badminton was not the only sport in which teams trotted through a preliminary-round game," he writes. "On Tuesday, in Cardiff, Wales, the Japanese women's soccer team, the 2011 World Cup champion, played to a scoreless tie against a much weaker South African side."

Apparently the tie meant the Japanese could forego the next round and advance directly to the knockout round.

I thought these were the best atheletes in the world.

Building a stong and productive project team requires two things:

  1. Team members who consistently perform at their best
  2. A methodology that doesn't incentivize poor performance at best, and doesn't get in the way at the very least

Sports teams and project teams have a lot in common. I just hope this type of behavior isn't one of those things. What are you doing to ensure that your methodology or leadership style doesn't get in the way of peak performance?

Posted on: August 02, 2012 09:12 AM | Permalink

Comments (16)

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Ah Ty, at last a blog entry that I can fully, whole-heartedly, disagree with. You've made my Friday :)

Whatever happened to "work smart, not hard"? Let's look at the situation objectively here for a second. We are not talking about a boxing match where a fighter throws the fight just so some gamblers can line their pockets. This is about teams who have a long series of game to play over a short period of time, and therefore have to manage their performance level to avoid burnout at a critical time. It is a pretty natural and sound tactic to save your energy for when you really need it.

And let's keep in mind, these athletes aren't accused of doping up to crush their opponents and score an undeserved win. No matter what the Olympic committee says, they haven't "cheated" in any way. Rules were established, and those teams did not break those rules - they just adapted their strategies around them to their advantage. Dura lex sed lex. So what are they really being accused of? Of making for a really boring badmington game to watch? Of pissing off the corporate sponsors by risking the telespectators switching to another channel instead of sticking around to watch the Games?

And if we really want to draw a parallel with project management, can you say that you'll assign your top PM to a low-risk, low-impact project when there's bigger fish to fry? Will you deploy the same methodoligical arsenal for a two-week initiative as for a multi-million project? Will you use up your budget for a project that will make one department happy, when you know you'll need the funds for another project later in the year that will impact the whole company? Of course not. We are all pining for more manpower and deeper pockets, but resources are scarce. And so we save up our resources for when they'll be really needed. That's good strategy and common sense. Should we really be casting the first stone here?

I have to agree with Julien.
This is more of a strategy than a performance issue. Think along why people should avoid 'winning a battle but losing the war', this is just something that people do to maximize their returns. Whether the strategy is ethical or not, this is another question. Perhaps the rules have to be changed to prevent people from leveraging the loopholes in the future if this is a real concern.

Jullen and Wai,

Although I'm happy that I made your day, I'm still curious if there are project management practices that inhibit, rather than encourage, peak performance. Are there things we do that get in the way of a team performing at its best?

Personally, I'm not a fan of the "strategy" of throwing a match, but I can appreciate what they were trying to do. The rule that makes that "strategy" feel legitimate is what I am lamenting.

What do you think? Are there common practices that make it difficult for the team to perform at their best? I'd love your take on that.

—Ty

Hmm, well, if you're asking "is there anything in the PMBoK or in Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 that, when applied, is detrimental to the performance of a project team", I don't believe so. It would be if one were to apply everything all the time to all types of projects, but a good PM is supposed to know how to scale the approach to fit his specific situation.

Now, if there are things that get in the way of performance, they must come from people (as you can see, I have unwavering faith in mankind). And one common thing that I've witnessed several times is the infuriating habit of ignoring best practices "because that's how we do things at this company", regardless of whether there's a better way or not - see http://www.despair.com/tradition.html

I have a couple of other examples straight from my work life, although I don't know how "common" those things are (I sure hope they aren't):
- Go / No-go decisions for launching projects that are not based on business cases; in fact, sometimes there isn't even any kind of business analysis to base the decision on.
- An experienced and capable man getting appointed Project Director for a fairly big project, only to have his authority undermined by a C-level executive who literally cut him off from the negotiations with the third-party contractor; how is he supposed to direct the project in any way if he didn't have a say in the budget nor the planning?
- Department heads who want a process, as long as *they* don't have to follow it; the good ol' "do as I say don't do as I do" thing.

Julien,

I think you give us some great examples of "people issues" that get in the way. I''''m convinced that most issues that hinder project performance are people issues. And, sometimes they are even project manager issues.

I''''ve also seen many times when department heads or other executive leadership "get in the way" of successful projects because they make decisions based upon their "gut" or other unreliable or uninformed information sources.

You make some great points. I agree with every one. I guess we''''re not that far apart after all.

—Ty

Okay, I will jump into this too. First, I agree with Julien and Wai Mun. The reason that these athletes tried to lose their immediate match was so that they would have a better chance to win the overall competition. It is hard to be more competive than that. The attempt to lose the match was indeed playing their very best in terms of strategy, execution, and eye on the prize. I do however agree with Ty in that the real problem was a methodology that incented the act of deliberately losing the match. As Deming would say, "Fix the process and you fix the problem." But in any case, I would not castigate the athletes. Nor would I call what happened cheating or unsportsmanlike. One could argue that losing (falling behind in the score) in a badminton tournament in order to win at the end is not that much different (in terms of strategy) than a 1500 meter runner going out slow, allowing the pack to run ahead while trying to keep the race as slow as possible, and saving a strong kick at the end of the race to overtake the others and win. Getting back to the badminton athletes, it was a pity to send them home. The rules officials should have dealt with the problem, their problem, in a different way; one that recognized that their system led to the behavior. The athletes were only trying to win. Having said all that - the spectacle of seeing the teams try to lose does look bad. And yes, someone should be held to account for why it happened and how to avoid it. I just don''t think that someone is the athletes.

Getting back to the blaming the rules officials and not the players, I would like to offer another example. Years back my best freind and I played competive tennis and we would enter as many tournaments as we could find. Typically, the tournaments had a double elimination, meaning that after the first match there would be a winner's bracket and a loser's bracket and the winner of each bracket would meet for the championship match. Not wanting to face each other too early in the tournament, my friend and I would flip a coin to see which one of us would deliberately lose the first match so that we would be in different brackets. This system worked great. A few times we met in the finals and of course we never met early in the tournament where one of us would regrettably have our day come to an end. As a by product of this strategy, we soon discovered that when we intentionally lost the first match to get into the loser's bracket, we consistently advanced much further in tournament, enjoyed playing many more matches, and more often made it to the championship finals. Simply put, would one rather win their first match, lose to their second match perhaps to the top seed, and be done for the day - or would one rather lose their first match, intentionally, and then advance through the loser's bracket, gaining valuable experience, wins, and making it all the way to the finals. Needless to say, despite our friendship, it did not take too long for my best friend and I too realize the benefits of intentionally losing the first match - which we both ended up doing. Were these actions unsportsmanlike? Perhaps. Were these actions non-competitive or giving up? Absolutely not. So my point, if you don't like what is happening, don't blame the players and send them home. Blame the rules officials and end them home. Just my 2, no 4, cents worth...!

This also reminds me of the strategy used by the famous military strategist, Sun Bin, in a horse race. Sun Bin suggested a strategy to Tian Ji, a military general of Qi state, on how to utilize his horses to his advantage, and Tian won two out of three rounds in the race by deliberately losing one of the rounds. Basically, Tian Ji has 3 horses with different average running speeds, A: 35mph, B: 40mph and C: 45mph. His opponent has better horses with speeds D: 37mph, E: 42mph and F: 47mph. If Tian Ji were to match his opponent's horses with the fastest versus the fastest and the slowest versus the slowest as in A vs D, B vs E and C vs F, then Tian Ji will definitely lose all the 3 rounds. Sun Bin proposed him to use a different strategy where Tian Jin matched his slowest horse versus his opponent's fastest horse, his fastest horse versus his opponent's average horse and his average horse versus his opponent's slowest horse as in A vs F, B vs D and C vs E, and the outcome is Tian Ji won two rounds out of three and eventually won the race.

Note: that the horses' speeds are given fictitiously for illustration purpose only.
The point here to emphasize is, this is all about devising a winning strategy.

Thank you everyone for your comments. This is an interesting discussion and a challenging question. I'm still convinced that the rules created an environment that incentive-ized athletes to lose. I think there's something wrong with a system that encourages poor performance.

The point of the post was to ask if there are processes we use that make it more difficult for our teams to perform at their best?

Ty, I agree. And this segues nicely into a project mangement discussion of Lessons Learned vs. Lessons Learned and Acted Upon...! So often Lessons Learned are documented, but how often are they truly acted upon by way of process and policy so that undesired outcomes are not repeated. Or like you suggested, so that processes that make it difficult for our teams to perform at their best are addressed. But great post, lot's of fun, so good to see that Julien and Wai Mun are just as devious as I try to be..!

Great article and thanks for sharing.

Interesting article and discussion!

Great discussion!

Great discussion!

Dear Al
Interesting is your reflection on the theme: "Getting in the Way of Peak Performance"

Thanks for sharing

Important point to remember:
"Building a stong and productive project team requires two things:

- Team members who consistently perform at their best
- A methodology that doesn't encourage poor performance at best, and doesn't get in the way at the very least "

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