How to stop your project going off-piste - Lessons in project management from the ski slopes - Stoneseed
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How to stop your project going off-piste - Lessons in project management from the ski slopes


Regular readers will know that I often write about how life can present you with perfect metaphors that illustrate how Project Management could and should be. Whether it's on a train, in a restaurant or even on holiday, often watching others do what they do can provide great insights that you can take back to the Project Management Office.

My latest came on a skiing holiday. (Yes I know it’s spring, almost summer, but I’ve already booked my next trip to the slopes - it’s addictive.)

Have you ever been zipping down a red-route piste and suddenly, as you pass the snow-capped trees on your right and the edge of a four thousand foot ravine on your left, thought you'd bitten off more than you can chew? You can study the piste map and avoid Day-Glo orange off-piste signs but sometimes circumstances that present themselves can take you out of your comfort zone and really test your capability.

Managing a project can be like that – sometimes you just wish you'd had greater opportunity to evaluate the challenge.

This time on holiday, a fellow skier mentioned that they'd taken a helicopter view of the course. Literally! He and his party had flown over the slopes they were about to ski down. From a few thousand feet in the air, they had surveyed the potential dangers and pitfalls and as a result, they were more confident of their chances of completing their descent still on their feet.

You should take a similar strategic 'helicopter' view of IT projects. By looking at the project as a whole, viewing all you need to accomplish from an elevated vantage point, you too can see the potential dangers and pitfalls. You see the project laid out almost like a piste map.

You can then pick the best route down the mountain according to the conditions – in the case of an IT project – business demands, constraints or opportunities.

I love the helicopter view. On IT Projects, I hover at my helicopter at ten thousand feet - from where I can survey the entire terrain. My project dashboard is like a radar and when a disturbance is detected or someone on the ground signals for help I can zoom into a thousand feet, assess the problem and give advice and direction or, if necessary, land and roll my sleeves up!

In a similar way the actual helicopter pilots giving airborne tours of the piste map tell me that they often switch from 'leisure' flights to assisting with issues on the mountain, forecasting piste conditions and even search and rescue.

It was whilst chatting to them that I picked up a great Project Management tip.

Whenever you zoom in to help with an issue signalled up from the ground - make a note to regularly hover over the area again to make sure that the problem got sorted fully and doesn't recur. Do that from your IT Project helicopter and the effect on performance will be measurable!

Are there any other lessons to be learned before we retire to the log cabin for the après-ski?

Well, the piste map itself, with its different colours, is like the RAG system project management method. While we rate IT Project issues or status reports red, amber, and green - on the slopes a similar method of fast red runs and blue or green long slow curves is applied.

All well and good but when you distil communication of issues to a simple 'traffic light' system you have to make sure that all stakeholders understand what the colours mean.

It's important to all be talking the same language - or at least make sure everyone understands the language that you're talking!

You may be a red route skier on the slopes of Combe de La Saulire in France but might find yourself out of your depth on the red slopes of Portillo in Chile. European red runs are for intermediate skiers whereas in South America they're more suited to advanced skiers. In Project Management terms, disparity between communication and understanding can lead to delays and budget overspends.

Interpretations of risk can vary too! A blue run in Val d'Isere, France, may be classed as a red run in Seefeld, Austria. Similarly, members of your Project team can measure risk differently, for example, choosing to ignore missed KPIs that are thought not integral to the overall project or not addressing a missed milestone or budget target. When this happens your whole Project can find itself sleepwalking into a disaster.

Finally, piste conditions, like IT Projects, can change hourly. What was a cruising blue run just after breakfast can become a hazardous and difficult red run by late afternoon. As a Project Manager it's crucial that you have contingencies in place for when (not if, when!) piste conditions change on the slopes of your project and it is vital that you communicate changes to all relevant stakeholders.

I'll leave you with a quote from skiing legend Lasse Kjus of Norway who won five medals between 1994 and 2002. He said, “You know, I really like winning and that’s what I do best.” By applying some competencies from the piste to your project, I hope you'll enjoy similar success.

Contact us to learn more about how Stoneseed's Project Management as a Service can give you access to project management staff, resources and tools at a flexible and predictable cost via a fully structured managed service.

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