There are some clear parallels between project management and captaining a sea voyage: You need to know your crew and understand that effective leadership has a pivotal role in navigating to success no matter the odds.

If there’s one analogy we hear more than any other in the world of project management, it’s the similarities between project delivery and ocean voyages. We’re guilty of making the comparison ourselves, in the context of project recovery and having a plan for when things can (or even might) go wrong.

It’s an easy comparison to make, for a few reasons. Both complex projects and sea voyages involve charting a course from point A (current state) to point B (end state). Both can be affected by external factors beyond your control. Both require considerable time, effort and resources to navigate known and unknown obstacles, and reach their destination on time.

And perhaps most importantly of all, both require the right leadership, skills and experience to make it all happen (and avoid wreckage and disaster).

Leadership – from the captain to the seaman

Sticking with our nautical theme, the most obvious place to start when thinking about leadership on a sea voyage is the ship’s captain. And indeed, the captain is where the proverbial buck stops. It is their role to ensure the safe and prudent navigation of the vessel from point A to point B, in the quickest way and with the least amount of cost.

And now here’s the interesting part. While they are responsible for the overall operation of the ship, the best captains know that in order to keep abreast of everything that is going on, they need to remain at least one step removed from the vast majority of day-to-day routines and duties. Instead, they make sure they have the right crew underneath them to take care of that.

There’s a simple reason for this: if the captain is too heavily involved in putting out spotfires, or solving disputes between crew members, or is simply distracted by other things, then they are more likely to lose sight of their critical mandate (reminder: getting from A to B, safely, quickly and cost-effectively).

And that’s when the really catastrophic errors tend to happen. There is no greater reminder of that than the tragic Costa Concordia disaster of 2012, where the (highly distracted) captain made some very grave errors and grounded the ship off the coast of Italy, resulting in the loss of 32 lives.

So how does this apply to project delivery? It’s simple, really. In our experience, the most successful projects are the ones where the captain (or the project sponsor, in our terminology) understands the importance of their role – and that it’s not necessary (or even desirable) to be hands-on in the nitty gritty of project management and execution.

Instead, what makes a great project sponsor (as well as a great captain) is the ability to provide oversight and steerage – as well as maintain a laser focus on that essential mandate of getting from A to B; as safely and efficiently as possible. It’s also about understanding the link between the project and the overarching corporate strategy; and having the ability to articulate its strategic importance, and advocate for it internally.

And finally, it’s about having a great first mate (although these days, they’re usually called a chief mate or chief officer when at sea) – that is, a brilliant 2IC who oversees the day-to-day, and answers to the captain for the overall safety and security of the ship (or your project). It’s an essential role to get right, both in a seafaring context as well as in project delivery.

In project terms, what makes a great first mate?

By now, you may have guessed that when we’re talking about a first mate in project terms, we’re talking about your project manager. When you dig deeper, the skills and qualities required to be both a great first mate and a brilliant project manager are actually pretty similar:

  1. They have great people co-ordination skills. They’re responsible in a tactical sense for day-to-day operations, so they bring people together and make sure the right activities are happening in the right parts of the ship (project). They’re also able to recognise when you’re lacking a particular capability or skillset, and can bring in the right people to plug any gaps, when needed.
  2. They are experts in stability. Just like many ships use ballast to maintain stability on the water, the best project managers have their own tools and techniques to maintain a stable course. A lack of project stability will almost always create turbulence, if not capsize it completely, so they must have the experience to maintain smooth sailing, even amidst external disruption.
  3. They are highly experienced across comparable projects. When it comes to project delivery, you don’t necessarily want someone who is already entrenched in your organisation’s “business as usual” affairs to lead the day-to-day delivery. In fact, a better approach is to enlist the help of someone who is incredibly familiar with the external environment, because they’ve done it all before.

You want someone who is an exceptional navigator, because they’ve sailed from point A to point B on similar vessels, many times before. They know the rules, regulations and conventions. And most importantly, they are likely to know where all the hazards are, how to avoid them, and how to recover from them if they can’t be avoided.

What you should be looking for is a project manager with extensive external experience, as well as the capability to work across the various parts of your project team. It’s a great complement of skills to those in the team who have in-depth domain or organisational knowledge.

The importance of good, early crew decisions

At the end of the day, the key point to consider here is the absolute importance of making good decisions around your crew (your project team), from the very outset of the project. Just like when you’re at sea,  it’s hard to make crew changes in the middle of the ocean. There will be significant time and cost implications, or you may find yourself drifting off course if the crew simply isn’t up to the job.

And the most critical of those roles is leading the delivery of the project. No matter how much experience you have as a captain, you wouldn’t set out on a long voyage without a safe pair of hands to back you up. Why should it be any different on your next project?

To find out more about how Quay Consulting can help your team manage high-risk projects,  please contact us.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...