Project Management Lessons From the SuperBowl
Weird game, eh? I mean Beyonce semi-humiliating her former co-workers. Oh, the football game was weird as well.
But it offered some good project management lessons.
What’s the worst thing that could happen if you’re responsible for a) the power to the stadium and b) the TV broadcast?
To be specific, what’s the worst recoverable thing?
It happened, and neither party was prepared with a contingency plan.
In risk management, which is a key aspect of project management, you need mitigation and contingency plans for the risks with the greatest exposure. First, let me define the three boldfaced terms:
- Mitigation Plan: What to do to prevent a risk from occurring, or to minimize its impact.
- Contingency Plan: What to do if the risk occurs.
- Exposure: The likelihood of the risk times its cost (to the project as a whole).
The electrics folks didn’t seem prepared, though it’s hard to judge from a distance. I understand that it takes about 15 minutes to cycle the power in a large stadium. But it took them 34 minutes. And no one seemed to have a clue about what to tell the people either in the broadcast truck or with the last name Harbaugh (John and Jim, the opposing coaches).
I know the TV folks weren’t prepared. The two sideline reporters were thrown into it, and neither one last night was capable of carrying more than 20 or 30 seconds of airtime without floundering. There were all sorts of interesting questions and analysis we could have heard from the ex-players around the table they eventually cut to, but they didn’t offer much. And being that this was in New Orleans, how could they not have a roving reporter on Bourbon Street? Now that would have produced some fascinating television, albeit TV probably requiring a seven-second delay.
Lesson: Make mitigation and contingency plans for the biggest risks.
Creative Problem Solving
Coach John Harbaugh of the winning Ravens came up with a brilliant plan for their last offensive play.
There were 12 seconds left on the clock, and the Ravens, leading by 5, faced fourth down backed up near their own end zone. The textbook play in this situation is to concede an intentional safety, where the punter steps out of his own end zone. The other team gets 2 points and the ball… but they receive a free kick somewhere around their own 20 yard line, with not too much time on the clock.
The punter’s job was to waste as much time as possible before running for his life out of the end zone. Everyone knew this.
The problem: that would normally take three or four seconds at most. The clock wouldn’t restart until the Niners touched the ball on the ensuing free kick… and not even then if they called for a fair catch. They’d have time to run a pass play, get out of bounds, and try a final play, either a long field goal for the tie or a long pass into the end zone for the win.
Coach John not only told his kicker to run off as much time as possible, but told his team to commit holding infractions on the Niners so they couldn’t get to the punter. They grabbed the rushing defensive players. They tackled them. They sat on them. There were probably half a dozen holding penalties that could have been called. No Niner could get to the punter for precious extra seconds, and by the time the punter was chased out of bounds there were only four seconds left on the clock, not enough time for the Niners to run a play after running back the free kick.
The holding idea was brilliant. You see, the penalty for offensive holding outside the end zone is… loss of a little distance and replaying the down, running even more time off the clock and probably ending the game. The penalty for holding within the end zone is… a safety, exactly what the Ravens were going to cede anyway.
His brother, opposing coach Jim Harbaugh, apparently didn’t see this coming. (Maybe he was still too busy being angry about a penalty his team didn’t get a few plays previously.)
Very creative on Coach John’s part.
By the way, neither of the booth announcers saw this coming. Phil Simms, who was wrong all night, stayed on the schneid by stating he wouldn’t take the safety at that point.
The officials, though, apparently figured it out. They didn’t throw a flag, which would simply have added to the confusion and changed nothing.
Lesson: Don’t just assume the obvious solutions are the only solutions.
Get Out of Their Way
My three rules for leadership are these:
- Share a clear vision.
- Engage smart, committed people.
- Get out of their way.
The Ravens let quarterback Joe Flacco make some decisions on his own at the line, including a critical third-down pass to Anquan Boldin late in the game. Boldin wasn’t really open, but Flacco knew that he’d be covered by only one man and trusted him and his superb hands to wrestle the ball away from the defender. He changed the play at the line of scrimmage, threw a perfect pass, Bolding grabbed it, and they kept the drive going.
The Niners couldn’t decide whether to let their young, inexperienced quarterback make his own decisions. When they did, things went well for the Niners, with the exception of one horribly thrown pass that was intercepted. When they reined him in, they couldn’t move the football.
They got to the big dance by trusting their quarterback to make decisions on the fly, at the line of scrimmage. They hemmed and hawed about it at the game last night, and it was probably the biggest difference between winning and losing.
Lesson: Trust your people, or find ones you can trust.