What Running A Marathon Taught Me About Project Management

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In fewer than 24 hours, I’ll be lining up on the start line for the Surf Coast Trail Marathon. This is my second marathon and my preparation has been less than perfect. When I ran this event last year, I had a solid 16 week preparation with lots of long runs that were planned with a specific cycle of three weeks of increasing distance followed by an easier week. This year, has been a different story and it strikes me that there are some lessons that can be applied to project management.

Break it down

One of the most basic project management techniques is to use the Work Break Down Structure. This means starting with the big task, let’s say build an app, and then breaking it down to it’s constituent units until you get to small enough tasks that can be executed and allocated.

So, building an app could be broken down onto designing the UI, designing a database, and defining the business logic. If you take the business logic task, this can be broken down into defining business processes, decision points, allocation of different responsibilities in the process and so forth. Each of those pieces might be further broken down.

The marathon I’ll be running isn’t a road race. Those 43km (it’s actually longer than regulation marathon length) comprise of hills, sand, uneven tracks and a bunch of different surfaces. My preparation for those 43kms means breaking the race down into parts and preparing for each one accordingly.

When I ran this event last year, I took a Work Break Down Structure mindset into the event while I was running.

I looked at the race as a series of six 7km segments. Mentally, that made a huge difference as 7km, by the time I get to race day, is an easy training run. It also helped that I’ve run a number of half marathon and longer sub-marathon events as it helped mentally break the task down.

Milestones

One of my favourite runs each year is the Two Bays Trail Run, that goes from Dromana beach to Cape Schanck across Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. When I’m running a marathon, I often see the 28km mark (which is the length of Two Bays) as a significant project milestone.

Planning

Like building complex software or deploying a large network, running a marathon requires planning and preparation. Unless you are already super-fit, you can’t just rock up to the start line and expect to finish a marathon. Projects are the same.

My partner and I spend a few hours at the start of each year planning our running events for the year. Once we choose the marathon (or marathons) we want to do, we work back and put all of the long runs we need in our plan in order to be ready. That planning means we can simply look at a calendar (we use a wall planner for this - in a project you’ll most likely use software) and know what we need to do each day.

I’ve worked on and run many projects during my IT career. One of the principle reasons I saw that lead to projects either failing or running over budget or time was a lack of planning and allowing for potential interruptions to the schedule. Putting some serious time into planning at the schedule and trying to anticipate issues ahead of time makes a huge difference.

Don’t expect the project team to work flat out all the time

Great project managers are single-minded in their commitment to delivering the project on time and on budget. But not everyone on the project team is as committed or able to put themselves in 100% of the time at their peak effort.

Training for a marathon doesn’t involve starting with a 5km run one week and adding 10% to that each week until you can run 42.1km. If all you did was relentlessly push your body week after week you would get fatigued, mentally and physically, and possibly injured.

Good project managers plan cyclically to allow people periods to mentally and physically recover from particularly intense phases of a project.

We’ve all heard stories of project team members bringing sleeping bags and portable beds to the office for the “last push” in a project. My experience is you can work at that kind of intensity for only a short time before fatigue kicks in and you become less efficient. This is what most marathon runners pare back their training load in the two weeks or so before a major event and then rest after.

You can’t expect a project team to work at high intensity for weeks at a time. If you need a high level of project intensity then you need to rotate your resources (which is easier said than done if you are limited in your resource capacity).

My preparation for the Surf Coast Trail Marathon this year hasn’t been as strong as I’d like. I’m hoping the solid training base I’ve built over the last few years will carry me through as I’ve missed a couple of key training sessions over the last eight weeks because of travel. Hopefully I’ll have done enough to at least match my time from last year.


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