Coach John Wooden, Project Manager

I was talking with a friend recently about legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who passed away at the age of 99 this month. My friend worked in close proximity to Wooden in the early 70s, when UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) was unquestionably the best college basketball team in the world, completing an unprecedented and unequaled streak of seven consecutive (US) national championships.

He told me a couple of stories that bear on project management.

Building From the Ground Up, Starting With the Socks

He said Coach Wooden spent the first five minutes of the first practice each year teaching the players the correct way to put on their basketball socks. He spent the next five minutes teaching them the right way to tie their shoes.

Micromanager, right?

Ah, context is everything.

Socks that wicked away moisture and that didn’t bunch up were new inventions back then. Wooden had seen too many players have to come off the court – or play less effectively – because they had developed blisters from socks that slipped just a bit. To most of us, it’s not a big deal, but to a 90-kilos-plus athlete pounding up and down a basketball court for 40 minutes drenched in sweat, a slight misalignment of socks can quickly lead to blisters.

And Wooden had lost a basketball game early in his career when a defender’s shoelaces had come untied; the player had to slow down and his opponent, unguarded, hit the winning shot.

How much attention to detail is too much detail? It depends on the context. Coach Wooden believed that ten minutes up front could have a big payoff down the road.

I suspect these introductory lessons also set Coach Wooden up with his players as a professional, a coach who understood the game at a deeper, richer level than the players had ever thought about… without having to show off in some way. Of course, after a time – and 88 consecutive wins – no one could have doubted his abilities, but he didn’t get to 88 wins simply by recruiting center extraordinaire Bill Walton and putting Walton’s beloved Grateful Dead on the hi-fi.

No Last-Minute Timeouts, No Play Diagramming

Today you see coaches calling two or three timeouts in the final minute of a close game to set up specific plays, diagramming them on a small whiteboard while the players huddle around.

Coaches did that back in the 70s, too… except for Wooden.

He set up plays, of course, but he did that during practice. No frantic diagramming on the fly; rather, his huddles were centers of calm. He’d confidently remind the players that they knew how to play, and how to win, and now would be a good time to remember that.

He believed that last-minute timeouts helped the team that was less well prepared, settling them down and giving them a specific per-play focus in the tense closing seconds. His team was fully prepared. They knew what to do, say, down two points, ten seconds to play, taking the ball out after an opposing basket. Why give the other team time to prepare a specific defense, or even have the coach remind them of one fact or another?

He trusted his players.

He prepared them, he taught them, and then he let them play.

After all, he couldn’t take the shot, or dribble the ball, or set a pick.

There’s a lesson there for project managers as well.

The Start and the Finish Are Worlds Apart

For many coaches, practices begin with a shootaround or scrimmage, or with diagramming plays. And games end with frantic scribbling as winded, tense players try to grasp a new play with seconds remaining in the game.

For Coach Wooden, practices began with some “housekeeping” that began preparing players to be able to give their best without distractions at “crunch time.” And games ended with him sitting quietly on the bench, trusting his players and their joint preparation.

Which start, which finish do you want your projects to encounter?

Projects are won or lost in the first days, in the Initiation stage. Sometimes you can save them with last-minute interventions, but well prepared projects need far less saving.

So perhaps we should all as project managers take a few lessons from Coach Wooden:

  1. Start by understanding that one of your biggest jobs is to remove roadblocks; that job starts the moment you know you’ll be working on the project.
  2. When things go wrong at the end of a project, it’s usually because you missed something at the beginning. (For example, what does “Done” look like? Who are the hidden stakeholders? Who’s the real client? What’s her business problem?)
  3. Set a clear project vision, put together a great and committed team, and get out of their way.

Needless to say, if you want to win 88 in a row, you can’t do it with project management technique alone; you still have to recruit Bill Walton. But it’s funny how the best project managers – and the calmest in crunch time – always seem to recruit the best team members.

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