PMs can learn from racing
I spent the weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway watching motorcycle racing.  Talking to the racers, I was struck by the similarities between the racing circuit and project management.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well.  When it comes to racing, doing things well can make the difference between a spectacular finish and a spectacular crash.  The process racers go through to be competitive provides insight that can be leveraged by new project managers as they mature in the role.

Compete at the level where you are, not where you want to be

No one is born an expert.  Zipping around corners at high speeds on an abandoned road is not the same as doing it for real stakes.

My husband during one of his first novice races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. ©2012 Kristin M Woodman.

My husband during one of his first novice races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. ©2012 Kristin M Woodman.

Most racers start with riding on the street for fun.  Maybe they move to track days, where they can go much faster than they can on the road, legally and safely.  Over time, if they think they are good enough, they transition to actual racing, at the novice level.

Novices are trained in the rules of the race and given an opportunity to compete against other riders at their experience level.  As a racer’s ability increases, they are moved up to the next level of competition, keeping riders of consistent performance together.  It takes time for someone to move from novice to pro, and not everyone makes it.

There is something to be said for learning the ropes.  Individuals who are interested in becoming a project manager can start out by applying project management principles in an existing role.  This is similar to a track day.  It’s a safe way to take the skills out for a ride and see if they are a good fit.

If project management principles make sense and are appealing, it might be time to take on the first “official” project management responsibilities on a project.  Like the novice class for racing, early projects should be something within the skill and ability level of the individual.

Over time, with increased knowledge and experience, a project manager can take on projects of increased size and complexity.  However, the progression should be aligned to the ability of the individual.  Migrating from small technology upgrades to a multi-million dollar program?  That’s like jumping from novice to pro.  It might be worth finding something in the amateur class first.

Learn from those that came before you

Walking through the garages between races, riders are talking in pairs or in groups.  They are sharing information about track conditions or particular equipment, comparing notes and generally helping each other from one race to the next.

Mistakes can be costly when a rider is inches away from pavement and gravity and skill are battling for first place.  Smart novices and amateurs look to experienced racers for guidance and direction.  What are the best tires?  What turns are safe to pass and which should be avoided?

Insight from more experienced riders results in fewer lessons that have to be learned first-hand.  Ultimately, that limits the amount of crashing and burning newbies have to do early in their career.

Individuals that are new to the Project Management discipline, or thinking of getting into the field, also have an opportunity to learn from others, from peers to seasoned pros.  The Project Management community is a friendly place, and many are happy to share their lessons learned with anyone who is interested.

First time working on a particular type of technology project?  Someone else has already been there, or has advice for managing a leading-edge technology effort.  Have a challenging stakeholder?  Who hasn’t?

Lessons-learned are a valuable tool to all project managers.  For those starting out in project management, they can provide insight to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, ultimately increasing the likelihood of success.

When you crash, get up and keep going

When it comes to riding, there is one thing that’s guaranteed.  All riders eventually lay down their bikes.  There is no “if” – it is always “when.”

One of the first things riders are taught is how to lay down their bike safely.  Why?  So when they find themselves in a position where they’re going to lay down the bike, they can do it with as little damage to their body and bike as possible.

When racing, if riders want to win, they are going to push themselves.  If they push beyond the limits of their skill and equipment, they are going to end up on the ground.  Riders that keep their head can basically ride into the crash and then pick up the bike and keep going.

No rider wants to crash.  But if happens, they want to be able to get up, dust off, and get back in the race.

Project Managers plan.  It’s the nature of the job.  They plan the work and work the plan.  Sometimes, no matter how much a project manager plans, stuff happens and the plan goes to hell.

To offset the fact that “stuff happens,” project managers are taught to anticipate and identify risks to their projects.  Positive risks are ones to take advantage of.  Negative risks are to be mitigated and avoided.

Over time, experienced Project Managers figure out that a plan is only ever as good as yesterday.  No matter how much risk planning, resource planning, and all sorts of other planning go into a project – things are going to go wrong.  Just like crashing during a race, the key is to get back up, dust of those planning skills, and keep going.


If you’re new to the Project Management role, or thinking about jumping into the fray, consider lessons from the racers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:  target projects that make sense given your newness in the role, talk with and listen to other Project Managers to help navigate your early projects, and when your plan isn’t perfect, keep going.  Good luck!