In Project Management

This picture is on a wall just outside my office. Every time I pass it I stop and admire it: a photographer would probably say it’s too blurred, or the light’s not right, but for me it’s just perfect. Back in the 90’s I was project manager for a large scale computerisation project for the Central Bank of Tanzania. During my 4 years stay there I had the good fortune of many memorable photo opportunities in some of the most beautiful game reserves.

I still remember the bruises in getting this shot, camera in one hand, standing up in the back of a cut-off Land Rover, holding on for dear life as I bounced across the open plains of the Serengeti, trying unsuccessfully to catch up to a sprinting cheetah. I knew for sure that it would be too risky for us to go any faster, and it seemed the cheetah was only starting to get into its stride. If I wanted to stop myself from being tossed out like a rag doll, I’d need both hands on the roll bar and a harness, rather than hubby holding me down by the ankles – but just when I was about ready to call it quits,  this sublime and beautiful cat decided to take pity on me and grant me my wish. It slowed down, looked right at me, and seemed to say, ”Go on then..I’ve got other things to do you know”, <Click>. We took one last look at each other before it seemed to turn on a penny and head off zig-zagging its way across the plains.

But why am I talking about cheetahs? Earlier today a friend sent me an article in the New York Times about a recent study that concluded that, even though cheetahs are the fastest animal on land, research now shows that much of their hunting success is not based on their speed but on their agility.

”Cheetahs don’t actually go very fast when they’re hunting,” said Alan M. Wilson, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London who studied cheetahs in Botswana and published a paper about them on Wednesday in the journal Nature. ”The hunt is much more about manoeuvring, about acceleration, about ducking and diving to capture the prey.”

Of the African predators the cheetah is probably one of the most successful in capturing its prey but we are now learning that clearly speed is not the only thing central to its success.

So what does this mean for our projects? Should we not be trying to get results faster? Well, no – not always. Context is really important here. You may have let your satnav map out the fastest and most direct route for your journey, and be driving a Ferrari, but this doesn’t guarantee getting you to your destination as planned, unless you are able to negotiate traffic conditions as they occur. You can’t make those decisions ahead of time – you respond to the situation you are in. This is agility, and this is what the cheetah does too. A cheetah can run at 58 miles per hour, but most of the time it chooses not to. The cheetah knows that it gets better results by taking the time to use its wide-angle vision to get a full sense of what’s going on around it, and its manoeuvrability to react in the most effective way.

The message for project managers is this. The business environment is a bit of a wild place. Things are constantly changing, and new threats and challenges can appear at every turn. You need to be flexible, agile, and know when to stop and listen – and when it’s safe to put on a sprint. Agile project management can be our trusted guide.

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