The Parallels Between Winning Sports Teams and Successful Construction Projects

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It can be argued that the fall is the best time to be a sports fan – summer sports are reaching their peak and teams are preparing for a late playoff run, while fall sports are just getting started and fans are enjoying a renewed sense of optimism about what the upcoming season may bring, even for the worst teams. Like sports, construction projects offer the same sense of excitement, or in some cases, fear.

Construction projects kick off with a sense of optimism and excitement builds as the project comes alive. Just like in sports where some teams win and some teams lose, construction projects can be successful or rife with issues that lead to long days and sleepless nights. And just like any good sports fan quickly forgets their teams’ failures in the prior season, the next season (or project) begins with a renewed sense that things will be different – when many times they are not because fundamental issues remain unaddressed.

With that in mind, let’s explore what makes teams perennial winners while others seem like they will never win a championship, much less a playoff game, and how construction projects are similar.

Successful (dare we say, Dynasties…?) sports teams and construction projects all demonstrate the following traits:

  1. Establish and Live Winning Cultures and Values

Successful teams are highly interdependent and interconnected, relying on everyone within the organization to do their job, starting at the top all the way down to the ball boy. Good coaches do not encourage players to drive through injury – they champion tools to help players get back to a healthy status to contribute to team success.

Successful construction projects set a tone at top that prioritizes honesty, transparency and collaboration, spearheaded by executives that lead by example. It is easy for project managers to feel the pressure of delivering a project on time and on budget which can lead to delayed reporting of bad news or project challenges. Some project managers even adopt a “send checks and I’ll solve this” mentality. A positive tone at the top can address these lapses by empowering project managers to be honest even when news may not be good, providing avenues for project transparency through the use of standard metrics and KPIs, and encouraging collaboration across all stakeholders to proactively identify and address potential challenges before they become major issues.

  1. Ownership Support

Successful teams have owners or ownership groups that are supportive but not intrusive. The best owners set clear standards (not rules), select the best coaches, and provide the coaches and their staff with the resources needed to succeed.

Successful construction projects are often driven by executives and leadership teams that set standards and empower their resources to freely execute on day-to-day project activities. Project managers are trusted, but also held accountable for results and outcomes – achieved through setting standards, establishing processes (see #3 below), and monitoring performance throughout the project, not just at completion. Standards can be defined as project specific or company-wide and are important to providing project managers with tools to deliver a project on time and on budget. Effective processes not only empower decision-making, but also provide insight into project performance across all levels with minimal intrusion to day-to-day activities.

  1. Planning, Play Calling and Execution

Successful teams plan, practice and execute week in and week out. They do this through establishing processes and structure – and then trust the process and tweak it to address any gaps. They also understand their opponents and internal capabilities and manage both to extract the best possible on-field performance.

Successful construction projects are often defined by the use of repeatable project management processes and the on-going identification and mitigation of external risks and delivery risks.

Defined and monitored processes for activities such as project initiation, planning, design, procurement, construction, and closeout are critical and provide project managers with the tools necessary to execute and deliver while providing leadership with on-demand insight into project activities and potential risks.

Successful compliance and project management teams regularly consider both external and internal risks. External risks can include unrealistic stakeholder expectations, availability of capital, compliance with regulatory requirements, laws and local jurisdictional requirements, and industry-specific risks. Internal, or delivery, risks are pervasive across all phases of the project lifecycle and can include misaligned budget, schedule and scope; manual or disjointed decision-making processes; uncontrolled design changes; use of unqualified vendors; schedule delays; and increased costs. Considerations for these risks are built into project management and control frameworks to mitigate unnecessary interruption.

  1. Analytics and Adjustments

Most, if not all, sports teams have embraced the use of analytics and we see the real-time stats as fans, and projections on what can happen next. That activity is ever-more important behind the scenes: What sets winning teams apart is their ability to quickly access metrics, make decisions, and adjust game plans. Metrics can align game plans with player strengths and weaknesses to make winning an evitable outcome. Successful teams use metrics to objectively evaluate wins and losses and make continuous improvement week after week.

The construction industry at large is lagging in the use of analytics for risk mitigation and decision making. However, successful project teams gather and analyze project performance data on a real-time basis using dedicated project management systems and data visualization tools. Metrics specific to cost, schedule, scope, and risk can be used to monitor project performance across an entire organization.

The ability to harness and analyze data drives the execution of the first three key attributes of successful teams – they encourage teams to work in an interdependent and interconnected way that allows everyone to do their job, set standards and enable monitoring while still allowing project teams to do what they were hired to do. These tools provide a method to ensure the use of standard project delivery process, and grant access to real-time data for decision making (or audibles) to mitigate risks. Analytics also provide quantitative analysis of project performance and allow leaders to identify better ways to deliver projects (or win more games next season).

A winning team and a winning construction project are built on the same foundational elements. Each learns from its mistakes or bumps in the road and applies it to the future, using various technology and analytical tools, as well as the most important tried and true catalyst: good leadership. As we continue the conversation on these critical components for construction project success, the next articles in this series will take a deep dive on project management, risk management and analytics. Until then, is this your team’s year?

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