What Race Cars Can Teach Us About Projects

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Categories: Project Planning

My last post on when to pull over a project to the side of the road generated much action on the Voices on Project Management Twitter feed. Here, I'll expand on that theme by highlighting the similarities in the makings of a race car and a successful project.

Today's race cars are a marvel of engineering and performance. They achieve these results while being extremely complicated and operating in harsh environments. However, to the spectator, racing appears to happen easily and naturally. When we see a race car whiz by, we don't see the many hours of planning that go into achieving both high speed and durability. 

Therein lies the parallel between race cars and projects. As project practitioners, we need to consistently ask ourselves whether our "project race car" is ready and able to win the race. This includes design and preparations before the race as well as vigilant monitoring of performance. 
Here are four essential components of a "project race car" that have to be well engineered and constantly monitored for your project to be a success: 

  1. Engine: At the heart of any race car is its engine. The engine provides the power to move the car down the road to the finish line. Great effort goes into the design, operation and monitoring of the engine to extract the maximum horsepower. The engine is similar to the project's business case. It also serves as the "horsepower" to drive the project to its desired outcome. If your project business case experiences events such as new or changed assumptions that cause it to lose momentum, then your project will start to fall behind and potentially stop. As with an engine, good business case design and constant attention to its performance is essential to project success. 
  2. Chassis: The power from the engine of a race car is transferred to its chassis, or structural framework, to propel it safely down the racetrack. The enabling infrastructure of the frame, wheels, suspension, steering and aerodynamic body all contribute to a smooth, fast ride. The same can be said of the methods, processes and tools that are a critical part of any project. These project management essentials must all be employed to work together in harmony for the project to move down the road. Could one imagine starting a race without all of the wheels on the car? Unfortunately, many projects do so without having the right fundamental elements in place. 
  3. Fuel: On a race car, the amount, type and consumption of fuel is a key factor in its ability to win a race. Each year the governing bodies of racing organizations work to tighten regulations around fuel to both achieve higher engineering performance and reduce environmental impact. Failure to select the proper type and amount of fuel can prevent a car from making it across the finish line. Many times I have seen project reports in which the overall status looks favorable but there are unstaffed roles. This lack of resource "fuel" can also prevent a project from getting to the finish line.    
  4. Driver: Even with the most advanced race car, it takes someone to help start it and confidently move it forward at the fastest but safest speed. In addition, the driver must also constantly monitor engine, chassis and fuel state as well as external conditions that will affect the pace of the race car. For projects, the driver is the project manager. The project manager must effectively start and guide the project, while also monitoring and adapting to external conditions such as other project dependencies and risks. 
How many times have you started a project "race" though one of the previously mentioned components was missing? What is the most frequently omitted element in the "project race car"?

For an insider look at car racing, read about a recent keynote speech on Formula One by Mark Gallagher at PMI® Global Congress 2014 -- EMEA.
Posted by Kevin Korterud on: May 23, 2014 10:38 AM | Permalink

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