Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth – Sherlock Holmes
Being from dutch descent, I obviously have a passion for soccer. Years ago, Louis van Gaal, a well-known and very successful dutch soccer coach gave his point of view of world-class performance, by saying: “quality is about ruling out coincidences.” Years later he completely re-build the footings of soccer club Bayern Munchen, and ever since that transformation, they have dominated the European soccer leagues. And now he is replicating the same principles at Manchester United.
What would Louis van Gaal do if he was a project leader? I think if you translate his principles to project management, many troubled IT business transformation projects most likely wouldn’t have ended up in that state. What would some of his principles look like?
A key principle is to have a plan and alternatives, call it a plan B, that are well-communicated and shared at all levels in the project and relevant business areas. The plan provides a clear sight of the future end-state and the path to get there, in terms of deliverables, approach and time line. There is a common belief that the planning process is more important than the plan itself. The process is a recurring, consistent, collaborative and inclusive activity supported by all key stakeholders and has plan versions at different abstract levels. There are many walk-throughs of the plan with the all the players, and together with the leaders they discuss major risk and mitigation strategies so everybody is well prepared. The core team is far-sighted, able to connect the dots and keen on translating requirements into work products, making estimates and crafting smart delivery strategies and tactics.
The project leader is audacious and creative in finding the most attractive path from A to B given the quality of the players, the business context and other conditions. When Louis van Gaal was the head coach of the dutch soccer team during the last world championships in 2014, he realized after thorough analysis, that he needed to change the tactics from an offensive to a more defensive style. The average age of the team was relatively low and therefore the experience level. He changed the formation from a 4-3-3 system to a 5-3-2 system. That change caused a huge turmoil across the country, because the default formation that dominated the ‘dutch school of thought’ was 4-3-3. Louis van Gaal was convinced of his bold change and trained the team on the new approach in a very short timeframe. They pulled it off by ending in 3rd place by beating Brazil and exceeded the expectation of the Royal Dutch Football Association. Germany won the tournament, and many of their players came from Bayern Munchen. Louis van Gaal was successful because he had an alternative plan and the courage to execute it. He got the buy in from the team players, and subsequently prepared, coached and motivated them to win. He changed before he had to, and knew what it looked like
Another principle is to implement industry best practice project management and delivery processes in the initiation phase including effective methods, tools and reporting. All project staff must be trained in the functional use of this model before the actual work starts. Ideally, the training is repetitive and addresses case material where performance did not hit the quality mark. That’s an effective way to build consistency. Major motivators for talented project staff is to learn new skills and gain experience throughout the project lifecycle. Seasoned project leaders find ways to combine that progressive learning ambition with continuous improvement of team performance and team bonding. An example of that would be recurring ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, where people come together and discuss a very relevant topic, or at times an odd, fun topic to trigger the creative minds.
Knowing what’s important and what’s not and being able to set the right priorities for the team is another principle. The project leader needs to be observant and have an eye for details without loosing side of the big picture. He has a transparent work style, open-door policy and is an effective communicator. Google Executive Chairman and ex-CEO Eric Schmidt and former SVP of Products Jonathan Rosenberg wrote a book about ‘How Google Works’  and said that one of their key responsibilities was to be a ‘router of information’. They said: “Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone. Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions, and being responsive to everyone reinforces the flat, meritocratic culture you are trying to establish.”
If Louis van Gaal would be a project leader, he would make a lot of notes, gather a lot of data, conduct detailed analysis and with all of that provide constructive feedback and coaching to the team players. He would share his opinion based on facts, and point the team into specific directions. He may consider doing project analysis, based on video recordings of the team performance and all kind of statistics. This approach is becoming more and more a differentiator in soccer and other sports. Big data and analytics has entered that industry the last couple of years as well.
The use of fact-based data in the decision making process is another principal. The project leader would use it for example to assess where the project is vulnerable and define corrective measures to be ready in case identified risks materialize into real problems. Together with the core team, the project leader would think through scenarios for areas where any surprise can catch the team off-guard.
There are many more principles from Louis van Gaal that we can apply to project management. They have one things in common and that is their focus on quality. Every aspect of soccer, on or outside the field, must be well thought through and meet high quality standards. That in combination with real-time fact based reasoning and decision making must put the team on the right track for high performance.
Bas de Baat
Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©