May 22nd, 2010

5 things you can learn about project management from the Montreal Canadiens

We’re in full hockey fever here in Montreal. If you have no idea what hockey is, or who the Montreal Canadiens are, you can read this post by substituting your favourite professional sport and team. It’ll still work.

The Canadiens are currently facing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, on their way to the Stanley Cup. Considering that the Canadiens finished the regular season at second-last place in their division, barely qualifying for a playoff spot, the fact that they got this far is nothing short of…well…miraculous. And deserving of reflection on what it takes to win in whatever “game” you choose to play.

[Edited: Tonight the Canadiens were eliminated by the Flyers. It was a great run. These lessons still apply. Thanks for a great playoff season. À la prochaine!]

1. You can only fire the coach so many times. Then you fire the team. I remember almost to the day when Michel Therrien was fired from his position of head coach for the Montreal Canadiens, mainly because I was…er…in “career transition” on almost the same day. I still remember the advice I received at the time: “When a team starts losing, you don’t fire the team, you fire the coach”. In other words: when projects first start to fail, the first victim is the project manager. But that will only get you so far. I also remember this comment from one of my managers, later on in my career: “When you get to PM#3 (on the same project), that’s when you know that it’s probably not the Project Manager!” Maybe it’s the product, the company, or a really bad contract. Or all of the above. As for the Canadiens, wouldn’t you know it, after firing their coaches two more times after Michel Therrien, they finally figured out that, yes, maybe it was time to fire the team. They did that last year. And here we are in the Eastern Conference Finals. Huh.

2. Le septième joueur: support your team. The city of Montreal is in full Canadiens’ fever. There are flags on all the cars, everyone is wearing their Canadiens’ sweaters (even in this near-summer weather) and there is Canadiens’ paraphernalia everywhere, most of it in my house. My 13-year old daughter goes to hockey game parties at her friend’s house wearing her Canadiens’ sweater. “Le septième joueur” (the seventh player as there are only six players on the ice in a game of hockey) is in homage to the fans whose loud support, some say, has helped to inspire the Canadiens to their victories. Project teams also need to be supported: by management and other stakeholders who can help remove obstacles to success. When is the last time that a Vice-President-King or Manager-King stopped into a Project Manager’s cubicle and asked: “What can I do for you today?” This only happened to me once in my entire career, which is kind of sad when you think about it.

3. Go find your Halaks. Work your team’s potential. Did we know who the heck Joroslav Halak was two years ago? And now can you walk two steps in Montreal without seeing something with his name on it?  At 271st in the overall draft pick into the NHL, Halak himself didn’t think his dream of playing goaltender in the NHL would become a reality. After playing his first NHL game in February 2007, he was sent to the minors for most of the 2007-2008 season. He came back to the NHL in April 2008 but really came into his own this year when he helped the Canadiens defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. All this to say that you never know where your Halaks are in your project teams. Go find them. Nurture them. Right now, they might look like 271st draft picks. But, if you give them what they need, before you know it, they’re taking you to the Stanley Cup Finals.

4. Every project has risk. All risk needs to be managed. Last Thursday night, my husband and I went out for a romantic dinner, which apparently included a big screen TV so we could watch the game at the same time. (It’s okay: only in Montreal can one watch hockey while eating an excellent risotto, sipping a fine red wine and finishing it off with the best tiramisu ever. We take our food as seriously as our hockey.) After watching the Canadiens finally get one over the Flyers 5-1, we came out of the restaurant to find downtown Crescent Street blocked off to traffic, police everywhere and a helicopter, a HELICOPTER for heaven’s sake, hovering over the downtown core. Why all the surveillance? Well, when the Canadiens started winning hockey games this playoff season, things got a little…hairy…downtown, resulting in some broken windows and other unfortunate signs of bad behaviour. I could just imagine the phone calls on Thursday night when it was 4-0: “Okay, they’re winning, call the calvary, MOBILIZE!” Now that’s risk management. The Ville de Montréal (I’m guessing) had a plan, and worked it. I couldn’t help but be impressed.

5. Celebrate your victories. This is the most important rule of any work in teams, and the one we neglect most often. Celebrate your victories often and well. A lunch to celebrate a completed milestone, a hand-written “thank you” card, have an executive come by and visit, homemade banana bread (but only if it’s really good), a banner saying “we did it”, a paid day off, an email congratulating the team: whatever the gesture, big or small, take the time to celebrate your victories. Take a lesson from the fans of the Canadiens: on Thursday night, when my husband and I walked north on Crescent Street and along de Maisonneuve, the cars were not honking because they were stuck in traffic (they were), they were honking because the Habs won 5-1 and the fans were running along the cars shouting “Go Habs Go” waving their flags and their noisemakers and you just couldn’t help but throw in a “WHOO HOO” in there because we most certainly were not going to let the Flyers off that easy.

Hell no.

Go Habs Go!

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