Project Management Institute

Without sports, project management would be hard!


Let’s face it: project management concepts can be boring. To make things more interesting, this paper weaves in sports analogies to help deliver some key best practices for all project managers to follow and demand from their project management offices. Using these simple sports analogies helps deliver the key concepts and best practices that I’ve acquired over my twenty-five years of working in project management and project management offices.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to benefit from this paper—the sports concepts used to present my best practices are basic enough for everyone to understand and enjoy. The purpose of using sports is to help you relate to the best practices presented in order to implement them in your organization.

The best practices presented are: being flexible and situational, use of subject matter experts (SMEs), keeping things simple and usable, focusing on customer service and continuous improvement, and are presented in sections relating to the sports concepts of focusing on the team, guiding the team, the rules of the game, the grounds crew and, most importantly, the project manager as the quarterback.


Having started up a project management office in one large company, working in others, and creating a global project management office Center of Excellence for yet others, I’ve seen my share of methodologies and processes. This paper will cover some of the best practices I’ve gathered over the years, with a unique twist toward sports. Sports? What do sports have to do with project management, you might ask. Well, quite a bit as you’ll see, because, without sports, where would we be? Consider the following:

Without baseball…”K” would just be another letter!

Without football…nothing to look forward to in September!

Without basketball…UCONN men wouldn’t be scary…. .UCONN women wouldn’t be scarier! (Yes, I’m from Connecticut)

Without hockey…there’d be no clean hits!

And without SPORTS….project management would be hard!

Focus on the Team

Let’s start with the core of most sports: the team. On most projects, as in team sports, a well-functioning team is essential to success. It all starts with clear roles and responsibilities, which is where many organizations get some basic concepts confused. A role is not the same as a job or position. Roles are filled by staff members with specific expertise, and often the same person fills multiple roles on a project team. For example, a project manager with good analytical skills may serve the role of business analyst, just as a business analyst with good organizational skills may serve the role of project manager on a small project. Of course, larger more complex projects still need a PMI-certified project manager in the role!

Understanding the responsibilities of each role on the team allows the project manager to ensure the right resources are filling the right roles. Defining the core responsibilities for each role helps create a starting point for the team to work with, which brings me to the first key project management office best practice: flexibility. It’s rare that a project team uses standard definitions of roles and responsibilities and applies them as is on a project. In some industries, such as construction and manufacturing, where projects are fairly standard and repeatable, this is possible, but in most major corporations, and especially on IT software development projects, flexibility is the key.

You’ll read about this key concept of flexibility in other areas of this paper. Another way to think about it is to be situational—you need to be able to adapt and modify, when needed, to fit the type of project, the style of team, and the culture of the organization. This includes the way you run the project, in terms of communications, meetings, project plan details, along with the project management office standards, processes, methodology, and templates, unless they are specifically required.

Defining who is doing what, who is responsible for what, and getting agreement from the team up front are the first steps in setting up a successful team. The project manager then needs to become the leader to help the team through the forming, storming, norming, and performing stages (1965, Tuckman). Early in the project, try to set up informal team building events or an offsite gathering; attending an event together, and even something as simple as a team lunch can help build relationships. It’s critical to do this early in the project’s life cycle, because it will be just a matter of time before the team needs to pull together and get through the inevitable “crunch time.”

Guiding the Team

In every sports team, there’s a group of other people involved in helping the team perform whatever game they’re playing. There are coaches, league officials, umpires, and others who may be involved—some directing the overall league and schedule, some ensuring each game is properly played.

The Coach

The coach analogy brings up my second project management office best practice, identifying subject matter experts (SMEs) to help project managers and teams. The project managers’ skill set is extensive; consider A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) knowledge areas as a starting point. You need to be good at integration, defining and controlling scope, managing time, estimating cost, ensuring quality, leading people, delivering communications, defining risks, and understanding procurement. Most project managers have expertise in at least one area: communications, facilitation, work breakdown structure creation, and so forth. Identify your experts in the project management office or senior project managers with certain expertise in the organization. Using them as coaches to other teams will not only help the project teams, but give the coaches a level of satisfaction when assisting other teams.

The League Officials

The “league officials” who coordinate the entire operation are the senior managers who oversee the project portfolio and resources. Depending on the project management office structure in your organization, it can be acting as an enterprise project management office or you may have business unit project management offices that focus on a particular line of business. In any case, these managers work with the business and customers to identify and prioritize the work for the teams to execute and usually govern the portfolio of projects.

The Umpire

Perhaps the least liked figure in sports, the umpire, is also perhaps the most important. Consider how a game would be played without an impartial participant to oversee and help ensure the proper outcome. The umpires in the project management world provide the governance necessary to ensure the project team is set up properly and heading toward success. Typically acting on behalf of a project management office, and similar to the coaching model, the “umpires” (or governators, as we call them!) can be staff in the project management office or senior project managers who oversee their peers. The attitude and approach to governance are the keys. Umpires should work more like a good little league umpire: providing assistance to the players and teams by explaining what they did incorrectly and how to handle similar situations in the future, rather than just telling them what they did wrong. In other words, they need to consult and advise, rather than just call fouls and penalties. Some focus areas that can assist with this include:

  • Project management – ensures quality of the project charter or plan deliverable, not just completion
  • Portfolio management – corrects reporting structure, proper approvals, and so forth.
  • Finance – proper funding categories, budget, change control, estimates/baseline v. Estimate at Completion, etc.
  • Resource management – resource needs (roles or specific individuals) defined for all project stages, with focus on detailed resource needs (6-week view)

Rules of the Game

One of the least understood but critical part of any sport are the rules of the game. For project teams, like teams in any sport, the rules must be well known, easy to understand and use, and help the team be successful. The “rules of the game” from the project management office include the processes, methodologies, and templates that support the project teams. One of my favorite activities when working in various project management offices was to challenge the methodologists and the quantity of process documentation. This is where my third project management office best practice comes in: keep it simple and make it usable. The “rules” should be about providing guidance and support to get you where you’re going, which shouldn’t be hard. Above all, process effectiveness shouldn’t be measured in pounds! I truly believe that some of the consulting firms that brought their methodologies to the companies I worked in, were paid in pounds of paper. My personal goal is to always make it easier for the project manager to do his or her job; he or she should be out working with and communicating with his or her teams and customers, not behind his or her desk and computer reading documentation and filling out templates. My set of rules includes approaches to process guides, user aids, templates, and reference materials.

Process Guides

Process guides should recognize the different learning styles of humans: some of us are textual, some graphical; I’d rather look at a map than read turn by turn instructions; others need the text to know where they’re doing. Producing process guides provides both a text summary of the process you’re documenting and a graphic that depicts the process (Exhibit 1). Next, recognize that most organizations have project managers with a wide range of experience; some only need basic information to get started—where the project scope should get documented—others need more guidance to capture the components of the scope statement. Start your process guides at a high level and allow the user to add more details when needed.

Process Guide Overview

Exhibit 1 – Process Guide Overview

User Aids

It is human nature to realize that very few people look at documentation after they first read it (if that even happens!), and just as few will access help functions (When was the last time you hit F1 for help?). This is where a simple user aid can help project managers and teams. User aids can be developed to support your tools, process, or roles—keep them easy to read and limit them to one page (or double sided, if needed). I typically produce these aids on hard card stock paper so team members can carry them in their portfolios or use as “cube wallpaper”; they will get much more use than any process manual ever written.

For example, one user aid I created helps teams by summarizing the scope-requirements-design steps into a one-page reference that business users and customers not familiar with the projects can relate to (Exhibit 2). I use this user aid, along with others, to focus on roles and responsibilities and use of our portfolio management tool, as the core user aids for all project managers and teams.

Scope-Requirements-Design Steps User Aid

Exhibit 2: Scope-Requirements-Design Steps User Aid


Templates are another part of the rules and offer a tremendous area of opportunity for an effective project management office. Templates should be designed to help the project team, not make it harder to get their work done. Some of my project management office best practices concepts will help get buy-in to using your templates, namely, making them useful, flexible, and non-redundant. Simple things like having a standard footer on the templates with the file name, save and print dates, and page numbers will help the users know what they’re reading, where it can be found, and what version they’re looking at.

Keeping the flexibility concept (my first project management office best practice) in mind when dealing with template use is critical. Because each project is potentially different, with different approaches and deliverables, templates should have clear required and optional sections and also allow teams to combine documents when it makes sense. For instance, if the team knows the basic business requirements of the project during creation of the project charter or plan, then there’s no need for a separate business requirements document. Within the document, include sections for each possible area of information needs to consider, but make sure the teams know they can be deleted or combined.

Grounds Crew

My next project management office best practice is taken from many successful companies, but rarely seen in project management offices; that is, operating in a customer service model. Providing service to your customers or project teams is analogous to the grounds crew seen at major sporting events. The grounds crew in sports, as in a project management office, work to “prepare the field” and provide support to the teams in order for them to have a successful game. Whenever possible, the project management office should assist the project manager and project team as well; setting up project information in the tracking tool and creating a document repository for the team to use are just a couple of examples of how a project management office can provide customer service. The project management office staff is usually the first to get project request information and can also assist with pre-populating information related to the request for the staff evaluating the request and the eventual project manager.

The grounds crew can also assist in other areas to support their customers. The project management office is usually responsible for setting up and maintaining the user information in the project portfolio management (PPM) tool. When new resources come into the organization, they can be set up in the tools and introduced as the new resources to the tools and processes they need to follow. The grounds crew can also assist the resource managers with managing the contract or consulting resources; making sure the managers know when their resources might need to be renewed, when their purchase orders are running out of money, and ensuring their timesheets are reviewed and approved. A final key function the project management office can provide is ensuring that the grounds crew supports collecting and sharing lessons learned on projects that are completing major phases or closing out the project.

The Quarterback

The project manager serves as the final sports analogy: the team’s quarterback. Project managers need to prepare for the “game,” making sure they know their “opponent.” They need to work with their team in leading it to victory—not being a coach on the sidelines, but using the coaches when necessary. Like a quarterback in the NFL, project managers need to “manage the clock,” making sure they keep the schedule and target in mind and taking a timeout when needed. Above all, by utilizing proper risk management principles, project managers need to “anticipate the hits” to avoid taking a major loss.

The project management office should help support and develop the project managers, bringing them together to share lessons learned, best practices, and identify potential coaches. As the Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Marino, once said: “Sure, home field is an advantage, but so is having a lot of talent” (Marino, nd, ¶3) Develop your talent (your project managers) and your projects will be more successful!


My final project management office best practice ties into a basic continuous process improvement concept: you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Getting the voice of the customer is critical in process improvement, and the project management office should constantly be trying to improve and increase its value to the organization. They need to relate to their customers and/or users, involve them in decision making, and communicate with them often.

A simple, periodic customer survey is a valuable tool, which I have found captures the voice of the customer and helps measure the effectiveness of the project management office by quantifying its value and defining areas of improvement. Use this survey to find out what’s working, what needs improvement, and collect any ideas or volunteers to help out. Make sure you communicate back to the survey participants with a summary of what you collected and what you plan to do about it. Keeping the survey questions similar from year to year will help measure the effectiveness of changes made during the year. Remember: you can’t improve what you don’t measure!

Marino, D. (nd) In BrainyQuote Retrieved from

Tuckman, B. W. (1965, June). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin 63(6), 384–399.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Michael Leser
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC



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