I understand that this title might sound a little confusing at the beginning, but I assure you that I will try to explain in this post what I mean with it.
Actually, it is quite simple. Last week in my head I started to compare a game of chess with running a project. I hear your first reaction: “That is not possible. In Chess you have an opponent and in Project Management not!” And of course, you are right. In Project Management you do not play against a real opponent, but a lot of times the surrounding circumstances do make you feel like you are fighting against one. If it is not your customer who is not co-operating then it is one of the infrastructural environments which plays up.
With that out of the way I can now continue with my comparison: Project Management is like a game of chess.
When you start up a project you make sure that the ground rules of the project are known to all the stakeholders. Just like in chess it is set that a game of chess is played on a board with 64 squares, which have an alternating black and white colour. There are 16 white pieces and 16 black pieces. And all of those pieces have their own place on the board at the beginning. Also what is known is that all of the pieces have their own set of rules regarding how they can move on the board and what their power is to other opposite colour pieces.
And what it makes even more comparable is that a game of chess has a clear end goal: you have to defeat the King of your opponent. With that done the game is over and you have brought your project to a successful end. The two other possible outcomes mean your project has failed or ends in a draw.
Also just like in running a project, a game of chess has 3 phases: opening, middlegame, and endgame.
How to play the opening phase is much like handling a project methodology. You choose a certain opening because you think it will guide you through the beginning of the project as smooth and effective as possible. You also choose a methodology because you know that chances are biggest that the opponent has the responses you are most likely to expect. Whether you choose the English Opening, the Benko Gambit, or the Ruy Lopez opening, it all is because as a player you think that it will lead you to the desired project outcome. And in that way it is just like chosing Scrum, Waterfall, or Agile.
Another similarity is that in the opening phase, just like in a project, the chances are largest that your opponent (the circumstances) keeps in line with your moves. It is unlikely that the largest deviations of the project methodology take place in the beginning of the project. They are most likely to take place in the middlegame.
During the middlegame the circumstances start to play a larger role in your project. And it is here that other qualities of a Project Manager are requested. You cannot simply stick to your methodology because your opponent might start deviating from your plan. And it is up to you as a Project Manager to be prepared for it and act accordingly. All the time just like in chess you need to be assessing possible risks and start to have a backup plan and possible mitigations for them. This all that when a risk materializes into an issue that you are prepared for it and can act upon it.
The middlegame when played well leads to the endgame, but most of the times during your project the middlegame is the longest part. And all the time you have to keep in the back of your mind that your end goal is to get into the endgame with as result that you defeat your opponent’s King and bring your project to a successful end. It is also very difficult to exactly define when the middlegame ends and the endgame starts. Sometimes the endgame has started already without you having noticed it.
The endgame has as it’s main goal to get the project to a successful end. But let us not underestimate this phase. In projects it is most often the most difficult phase. Everything is in it’s right position on the board, but you can just not get it to finish. The customer is not willing to sign off yet, there are some issues that still need to be resolved, the production environment has not been set up properly yet. Sometimes the endgame can last even longer than the middlegame. But a good Project Manager will know how to end this game successfully.
There are some popular views that for each of the phases in a project a different type of Project Manager is needed. This at least is not possible in a game of chess. However, most of the times during running a project this luxury of using different Project Managers during different phases is also an utopy. Most of the times as a Project Manager you start the project. You hang on during the middlegame. And you struggle during the endgame.
And this is where I will introduce Gary Kasparov as an ideal Project Manager. Gary during his times was not dependent on knowing only Scrum. No, next to Scrum he also was a master in Waterfall, DSDM, Prince2, PMP, Xtreme Programming, and Kanban. In most of his games he managed to transfer his middlegame into a successful endgame by thinking at least 8 steps ahead of the circumstances, or in other words he carefully planned ahead for risks and issues.
But most of all next to knowing all the methodologies he was also a master in improvising. When the circumstances requested this Gary was perfectly able to switch from Waterfall to Agile. He seamlessly solved issues with resources on his board. He welcomed challenges put upon him by stakeholders. He managed to return to his methodology when his opponent made an unexpected move. And most of all he managed to win most of his projects. And that is what made him the greatest Project Manager of his time.
Of course, I also know that many of those comparisons can be easily undermined. But in its simplicity there is something to say for it. A good Project Manager is like a good chess player: he knows how to manage his project from the opening phase to the middlegame and finally ending the game successfully. He does this with a set of tools, methodologies he has mastered. But he is prepared for deviations from his plan by thinking steps ahead and anticipating on unexpected circumstances. If he does this successfully then the Project Manager has a very good chance of bringing his project to a success!