Just seconds to go in a basketball match. The coach calls the final timeout and discusses how to score and win the game. Who will get the ball? Well, in most cases the best player, the guy who’s in best shape, the one all others trust that he can carry them, in brief: The “go-to guy”. He will be the one to shoot the last shot, it’s his performance that will decide if the team wins or loses.
In other sports, there are similar patterns. In a two-minute-drill in football, the superstar wide receiver is a lot more likely than his rookie colleague on the other side of the pitch to receive the passes. And in soccer, the penalty in the final minute is usually also taken by the leader of the team.
This is a logical tactic: When you really need performance, give the task to you best guy. The problem is: Your opponents know it, and maybe they will put two or three defenders on your best man in crunch time.
I’ve seen the same pattern in project management a couple of times. Project management is comparable to sports in many ways, the most visible one being the fact that both games and projects have set timelines and end points. And also in project management, the closer you get to the end, the more tasks are given to the go-to guys, to those managers that everybody trusts they will deliver a good result.
The opponents in project management are not opposite teams, they are the need to finish in time and in good quality. As many projects have a quite complicated setup and set of tasks to be fulfilled until completion, this results in the fact that the closer a project gets to the end, the more overloaded the go-to guys will be.
When deadlines are looming, no one seems to care if things are important or not, the urgency of tasks wins the fight, and as a result, all tasks go to the go-to guys. The complexity of projects favors this development: As the go-to guys were the central project managers from the beginning of the project, they have the overview, they know how a task relates to other tasks and to the overall picture. So in contrast to most others, the will be able to fulfill a task and to fulfill it within a reasonable time frame.
I’ve seen this pattern many times: The further a project goes, the worse the distribution of work load is: Some are pretty relaxed while others are completely run over by the amount of tasks they have to fulfill. In the end, not only the go-to guys suffer, but also the overall project efficiency.
This problem happens so often because it is very difficult to solve.
I thought about it many times, and the only solution I see is to establish more go-to guys. And that’s where it becomes tough: Just like the basketball coach in the final second, a project manager close to the end of the project will realize that these central figures on a team won’t fall from heaven. You have to build them up long before.
But at the beginning of a project, the work load is smaller, the time lines still seem feasible and everybody feels like it can be done easily. Even very experienced project managers often underestimate how tight projects will become at the end.
My suggestion may sound pretty weird and not very intuitive, but even though it may not be necessary in the beginning, why not staff central positions in a project with two people instead of just one?
In the early projects phases, the efficiency won’t suffer, as with a group as small as just two people, close communication will be easy to do so that both of them will always know the details of what’s going on. And when the going finally gets tough, both can be addressed to solve the urgent issues.
What may seem like a complete waste of resources in the first phases of a project actually is not: Even early in the project, resources will be freed so that both can do additional stuff in parallel to the project or just set the project up better. A sparring partner will improve the quality of the early decisions, which are in most cases the decisions which, if not well taken, create a lot of additional work towards the end of the project.
And towards the end of the project, the advantages become obvious: Not only will it prevent from overloading central project managers, it will also involve broader parts of the organization, add additional resources and provide for a sound replacement in case one of the go-to guys will turn sick, be put on another important task by management, leave the company, or whatever.
The only important thing is: This will not work once the project has been going on for a while. When you realize you have the need for additional go-to guys, it’s often too late to bring them in. Think about it before a project starts, set the project up accordingly and go for the unintuitive step of doubling central positions. I’ve seen it work and the further a project advances, them more you will profit from it.