By LaTia Few, MBA, PMI-ACP
Principal Project Manager and Founder
LaFew & Associates LLC
For the past 14 years, I’ve served as a Division I and Division II Women’s NCAA referee while maintaining a full-time career in project management. At first glance these two roles may seem like complete opposites. However, referees and project managers have more in common than you think.
Referees and project managers are the central authority figures within their respective domains. Both are responsible for providing overall governance. Whether it’s a crucial game or a critical initiative, referees and project managers must maintain order to ensure that teams follow the rules necessary for a fair outcome. Throughout my dual career, I’ve found that the skills and attributes I demonstrate as a referee are similar to the ones required to manage my client’s projects successfully.
Here are the top three best practices I’ve learned as an NCAA referee that I believe are the most valuable to managing traditional (waterfall) projects:
1. Maintain a Winning Mindset
It takes a certain kind person to be a referee, especially at the collegiate level. Referees must be willing and able to withstand intense pressure, high emotions, and public scrutiny. Mental toughness is imperative.
Sometimes managing projects can feel just like refereeing an NCAA championship game. Big projects often come with huge stakes in the form of budgets, resources, and organizational impact. When emotions run high, it’s up to the project manager to identify any conflicts that might keep the project from proceeding on time, within budget, and ultimately provide your client value.
In the same way a referee’s call has the power to set the tone of the game, a project manager’s mindset can positively or negatively impact the course of a project. To successfully motivate and lead teams, project managers must display calmness and composure in the face of adversity and challenges. Additionally, being prepared and knowledgeable will allow you to preside confidently over even the most stressful or complicated situations.
2. Balance Upholding Rules with Managing People
You can’t referee a game without knowing how the game is played. For this reason, aspiring referees are required to undergo rigorous vetting and intense preparation. To become and remain in good standing as an NCAA referee you must read the current year’s rule book, attend annual training sessions, pass a yearly exam with a 90% score or above, and be observed and rated every three years.
Similarly, as a project manager, I must adhere to an organization’s standards and rules, but an essential part of my job is also creating new, project-specific ones. One way that I document and ensure teams understand these rules is by creating a Project Charter. The Project Charter includes project details such as the scope and objectives, schedule or timeline, deliverable approval processes, and team roles and responsibilities.
Establishing and documenting project governance procedures fosters consistency in the team’s approach. But as much as project managers must hold their teams accountable for following established protocols, overly focusing on rules may actually get in the way of completing the project. As sports spectators often say, sometimes you have to “let the players play the game.” After all, no one likes a “whistle happy” referee. It’s up to project managers to find the right balance between managing your team vs. managing processes to optimize performance.
3. Clear Communication Is Effective Communication
There are dozens of hand signals, phrases, and gestures that referees use to communicate to coaches and players. This shorthand enables us to verbally and non-verbally convey everything from warning and penalties to game start and end times. The system works because it is clear and concise, thus maximizing game time and minimizing potential ambiguities.
Effective communication is arguably the most important skill for project managers. It is vital to helping project teams stay on task, ensuring mutual understanding and agreement on all aspects of the project, addressing issues, and remaining united on common goals. Improper communication can lead to misunderstandings about project goals or objectives, missed deadlines, internal conflict, and a lack of stakeholder buy-in.
I recommend that project managers develop a Communications Plan as part of their initial project planning efforts. The plan can be as brief or complex as needed to fit your project and the organization’s specific needs. It should describe who you will be communicating with, what needs to be communicated, where and how often you will meet, and any format or templates that you will use. As a virtual project manager, my plan typically incorporates the tools I use to facilitate team communication, such as online collaboration software, conference calls, and web-based meetings. My goal is to develop and execute a practical plan that helps me to maintain clear and consistent communication with the team throughout all stages of the project.
Being a referee is a tremendous responsibility that comes with a lot of pressure. However, the lessons I’ve learned on the basketball court and lacrosse fields have helped me become a stronger project manager. Through regular application of the three best practices I’ve shared above, so can you.