Mountain Biking and the Art of Project Management
Several years ago, I rather naively took up the sport of mountain biking. I’ve always had a casual interest in cycling and would often ride my bike on the many roads and paved trails around my house. It was fun and a good way to get a little exercise. So when my brother asked me if I wanted to go with him to a local mountain bike trail for a ride, I thought “sure, sounds like a good time.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After two years of scrapes and bruises, untold runs-ins with snakes, spiders and the occasional feral dog, and at least two cases of poison ivy, there are a few valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way. What is most surprising is how closely these rules can be applied to my day job as a project manager for a digital advertising agency. Yes, it’s true; the world of digital advertising is not altogether dissimilar from a thickly canopied forest trail, rife with danger and adventure.
Rule #1: Know Your Trail
Now, keep in mind that I live in North Central Texas, so by “mountain biking,” what I really mean is riding off-road forest trails. There are actually quite a number of these trails to be found in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and even more if you are willing to drive a few hours outside civilization. The first piece of advice I’d give you is finding an organization to join. Luckily, there is a great one here in town called the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association (DORBA). Most cities will have a similar group. These are the guys that build and maintain all the trails, so they have great resources that you will want to take advantage of when heading out for a ride. DORBA’s website offers trail maps and information about all the trails in the area. You can easily find information such as trail mileage, location of the nearest hospital and even the technical difficulty of each trail. Even with all this, there is really no replacement for taking a buddy with you who’s already familiar with the trail.
Project management can be exactly the same. It is dangerous to charge forward on a project without having some basic knowledge about the path ahead. Joining an organization can be a great resource here as well. I’m a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and I highly recommend joining to anyone interested in making a career of project management. But while PMI provides a wealth of knowledge and resources, it addresses the discipline of project management in a general way. It can’t possibly understand all the nuances of your specific industry or organization. Sometimes there is just no substitute for finding a project manager (PM) mentor in your own company that can help show you the way.
Rule #2: Start with the Right Equipment
Nothing can ruin a great day on the trail faster than not having the right equipment. That first time I went out with my brother, I took my 10-year-old hybrid bike out onto a 16-mile single-track rocky trail. I wasn’t at all prepared for what I was doing and didn’t understand the equipment I needed. In retrospect, it’s amazing that I didn’t end up in the emergency room. No matter what you are undertaking, it’s important to use the right tool for the right job. For off-road biking in North Central Texas, that means a mountain bike that’s rated for off-road use. Now, there is plenty of debate between cyclists about what type of mountain bike is best. Some people prefer 29-inch wheels or full-suspension frames, some prefer clipless pedals and others prefer platforms. Mostly these decisions are about preference. Once you have found a bike that will handle the stress of off-road cycling, it’s up to you to customize it to fit your comfort level. For the record, my current ride is a Giant brand full-suspension frame with 27.5-inch wheels, hydraulic disc brakes and platform pedals. Her name is Mabel.
In project management, you also need to make sure you have the right tools for the job. A project plan, scope baseline and project requirements are all essential for a successful project. Going into development without those things will likely lead to failure. Just as with bike preference, though, the exact format of these elements is largely up to personal opinion. Many PMs swear by Microsoft Project to manage every aspect of a project. Some use cloud-based software, sticky notes, Kanban boards or Skype. But I’ve also known exceptional project managers that relied on nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of everything. I’ve seen many project managers get too obsessed with having to use a very precise piece of software. When something comes up that prevents them from using this software, and it inevitably does, they struggle with completing their projects on time and on budget. It’s the project framework and communication that are important, not the specific application of that framework.
Rule #3: Have a Backup Plan
Stuff happens. That’s some of the best life advice I’ve ever received. On the trail, there are any number of things that can go wrong. It’s always important to try to anticipate as many of these situations as possible and have a plan. Sometimes it’s as simple as bringing a few extra supplies with you. I will often ride a trail with a headlamp, knowing that it might be dark before I’m finished. In these cases, I take an extra battery for my light. It’s always a good idea to take an extra tube in case you get a flat tire and a multi-tool in case you have mechanical issues. Even if the plan is just to walk the bike out and drive it to the nearest bike shop, it’s good to have thought about it ahead of time. In the middle of the trail is usually not the best place to come up with a strategy for how to solve a problem. What happens if you fall off the bike and break your arm? What if a snake bites you? What if you can’t get a cellphone signal? Once something bad happens, you are probably emotional and stressed. That is, generally speaking, not the best frame of mind to be making decisions. Have a game plan for these eventualities before you get on the bike.
In project management, we call this practice identifying risk. Risk is an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has an effect on the project. Every project has risk. As a PM, it is our job to identify as many risks as possible and control this risk by planning our responses ahead of time. There are a few ways we can respond to risk. Occasionally, you accept the risk and move forward knowing that it might become an issue later. Sometimes that’s the right decision if the risk has a low probability of occurring and/or would have minimal impact on the project. Risk can be avoided by taking action, such as changing the project scope to eliminate a specific risk. Probably the most frequent response is to mitigate risk. That’s when the project manager takes steps to lessen the impact of a particular potential issue. For example, a feature for a website you are building might be dependent on the outcome of some research your team is doing. What you can do is plan a version of the website that works without this specific feature. That way, if the research takes longer than expected, it won’t delay the launch, but you can still roll in the updated feature in a later release. Risk is just part of the job when you are a project manager, but controlling it is simply a matter of thinking ahead and having a plan.
Rule #4: Trust Yourself
When you are out on the trail, occasionally there will be a steep downhill section or a sketchy-looking creek crossing or a drop that you have to make from one section of the trail to another. There are even obstacles such as logs or rocks that are purposefully left in the trail or manmade obstacles called technical trail features that are designed to enhance the ride. The best advice I can give to anyone when confronted with these situations is to trust your instincts. There is no quicker way to get into trouble than attempting something without confidence. Almost every time that I’ve crashed my bike has been a direct result of hesitation when tackling a new or intimidating obstacle. I find that when I trust my bike and my instincts, I almost never get myself into trouble. Now, sometimes those instincts will tell you to stop. If you aren’t comfortable with a particular part of the trail, then slow down and walk your bike over it. Or sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a minute to evaluate the situation, picking your line and then moving forward. Your first instinct is usually the best one…listen to it!
Project management involves a lot of planning. PMs plan for budgets, timing, risk, communication…we plan for everything. Sometimes the hardest thing for a PM to do is to stop planning and just execute. It’s easy to second-guess yourself when you are undertaking a big project, but the most effective thing you can do is trust yourself, trust your planning and plunge ahead. Once you have planned out your project, don’t be afraid to put that plan into motion. Just like on the trail, though, you should always listen to your instincts. When you come across something in the middle of a project that makes you pause, don’t dismiss that feeling. Never be afraid to stop and ask questions. How does this decision affect my schedule; how does it affect my budget? You might need to evaluate these bumps in the road and correct your planning accordingly.
Rule #5: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
No matter how good your instincts are on a bike, sometimes you are going to crash. It’s going to happen. It is very important to take precautions against this. That’s why you should always, always, always wear a helmet. If you are particularly injury-prone, like me, gloves and protective glasses are also pretty good ideas. Every person who has ever gotten on a mountain bike has experienced an awkward period where gravity is his or her enemy. There is a certain amount of this risk that any person has to accept just by getting on the bike. However, like any activity, repetition is how you get better. The only way to get past that awkward phase is to get past it. Falling is inevitable, but getting back up is a choice.
Every project manager started somewhere. Usually, the first time most of us managed a project, we didn’t even realize we were doing it, let alone know there was some job out there called “project manager.” It probably started in school when you were the person who naturally took charge of the group assignment or at that first job when you saw how inefficient something was and took it upon yourself to fix it. No matter when it happened, at some point you realized that you had a knack for getting stuff done. But along the way there are always projects that end in failure. Every PM has a project at some point go sideways. The budget gets blown or there are schedule overruns. Hopefully, we have safeguards in place to keep these failures from becoming catastrophic, but they can never be completely eliminated. And believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Failure is the greatest teacher this world has to offer.
Life can be a dangerous and scary place, whether you are screaming down the single track on your bike or implementing a huge digital project. But just because it’s dangerous doesn’t mean that it can’t also be fun. The key to either activity is to think about what you’re doing, put a good plan into place (and a backup plan), gather the right resources, execute with confidence and always learn from your mistakes. Understanding these simple rules can go a long way to help you enjoy your ride in the woods, both actual and metaphorical.