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Gary Wyles

Festo Training & Consulting

Managing Director

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You can’t deliver a marathon project at a sprint


When the pressure is on and the project clock is ticking, the first thing that we all want to do is delve in and get started. Odd as it may seem, action puts us at rest. It makes us feel empowered. We feel that we’re doing something tangible.

But that’s not the starting point if you are to have a successful outcome of a project. Before we leave the starting blocks, we need time to prepare.

Imagine what it must be like to spend a year planning for a race that might last just hours, minutes or even seconds. Where every focus is solely on crossing the line ahead of the competition.

A world-class athlete invests this time preparing for the race. That’s not just in terms of their fitness levels and running practice, it’s also the mental preparation.

They’d take a strategic view of the best way to win the race bearing in mind their own fitness and style, how their competitors like to run and, of course, the terrain or track they’ll be competing on.

Now think about our own organisations. Rarely do we spend that time in the preparation before we start our projects. We set off at a fast pace determined to jostle our way to the front, without realising that you can’t sprint a marathon.

When a manager is planning a project, they need to recognise that they have to invest the time and work with their team to prepare.

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

There are 3 key steps in this process, which follow Simon Sinek’s theory of The Golden Circle. The most important aspect is to do it in the order below:

  • Understand the why. From a management perspective we’re always at risk of looking at the here and now, losing sight of the bigger picture. For any project to be successful we need to be articulate and communicate clearly why a team needs to complete the project. They need to know the importance of this specific project in delivering the strategy of the organisation. A manager then has to be able to link this to the personal objectives of each team member so they know their own role in this process. This can include specific objectives in each individual’s Balanced Scorecard or setting up Key Performance Indicators. If team members know the why and feel that they’re connected to achieving this, they will be engaged and productive employees.
  • Plan the how. This is a step that’s often missed out in team working. How is the team going to work together? They will need to know their responsibilities to the team and the team’s expectations of them. They’ll also have to understand how the team dynamics will work in practice. This can often only become clear once the team embeds. Using the Form, Storm, Norm and Perform model from Tuckman’s stages of group development can help teams plan how best to utilise the strengths, and safeguard against their weaknesses.
  • Know what to do. If we’ve clearly set out why the project is important, we’ll have the big picture. We’ll be clear on how we’re going to achieve it and our role in delivering a successful project. Knowing what to do is planning the detail and scheduling the activities. Setting off at a fast pace is fine, as long as we recognise that pace-makers rarely win, or even finish the race. Instead, if we need a sprint start, set the distance accordingly. Vary the pace. And put in time to recognise achievement and celebrate reaching interim goals along the way.

Setting goals and milestones also means that we can continuously check and refine our strategy. The pace of change in the world and in our own environment and sector means managers have to constantly check that the strategy that they’ve so carefully developed still has relevance and takes into account these changing internal and external factors.

We set off at a fast pace determined to jostle our way to the front, without realising that you can’t sprint a marathon.

It is this pace of change that means there are times when your team will need to be fit for the 100m sprint. Sometimes this is planned. Often it is not.

We know that this pace cannot be sustained for long period, so how do we focus our time and energy where it really matters?

Separating out the urgent from the important and using a simple matrix can help managers identify what needs to be prioritised, and how to direct and work with the team. This matrix also helps in those team meetings where activities are discussed and work prioritised.

It provides a useful coaching question to ensure that all team members are focussed on what are urgent and important activities from a short-term crisis needs to long-term strategic requirements. Equally what can be dropped and what can be delegated.

As Stephen Covey once said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Taking the time to plan is an essential component for any project or team activity.

The leadership of organisations has to give its managers and projects teams not only the permission but also the skills and the tools to prepare properly for any strategic initiative. If it’s important to the future of the company, then preparation has to be prioritised.

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Gary Wyles

Managing Director

Read more from Gary Wyles

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