Relay Racing and Projects

Yesterday at the Rio Olympics, the UK’s 4x400m men’s relay team thought they had secured their place in the final, when they crossed the line first in the semi-final.  But they didn’t.  Instead they were disqualified for a technical infringement at the baton changeover.

Team sports such as relay running, are great analogies for project teams in many ways. It can be very insightful to look at what we do on our projects, and compare them to top-level sports teams.

Most of us instinctively know what helps, and what hinders, achieving success in team sports.  And when we transfer this insight into a major project, it can highlight the folly of what we sometimes do at work.  It isn’t that we deliberately set up our processes to destroy teams, because most of what we do is done with the best of intentions.  No, it is mostly accidental.  We don’t realise the negative consequences, and this is what using a simple team sport analogy can help us to spot.

With relay running, we are reminded how critical the interfaces between the individual team members are.  If doesn’t matter how well each runner runs their leg, if the  interface isn’t world class, then they will not succeed.  I can remember a project client (a major UK supermarket) telling me that he didn’t care about what happened between his various subcontractors.  His attitude was that it “…was your problem to sort out”.  And of course, we simply added additional cost to our estimate to cover the risk that we worked alongside contractors who made our life difficult.  You cant expect a high-performance team by just putting people together, giving them different performance measures, and telling them to “coordinate with each other”!

The other key lesson, is that the team succeeds only if everyone succeeds.  There are no medals for teams that are 30m ahead after three runners, and even Usain Bolt will not help you win if one of the previous runners was so slow that he starts 2 minutes behind.  And a project isn’t successful if 6 out of 7 contracts are on-time and on-budget, if the last contractor finishes 3 months late and overspends by millions.  And of course their problems are often the consequence of the previous phases.

Do you run your projects like a relay team? Here are some of the key lessons that I think projects should remember..Pick individual team members on their capability, potential, and willingness to work as a team.

  1. Spend time on the interfaces – ensure all the team members are in perfect sync.
  2. Execute like a relay team. When a task is underway (running with the baton), then the focus should be on completing as quickly as possible. The successor tasks should be ready to take the baton as soon as it arrives, watching the progress of their predecessors like the next relay runner does. They then execute as quickly as possible.
  3. Have a single KPI for all the ‘runners’?
  4. Test all of your rules, procedures and controls with a simple question, “Would this be something a world-class sports team would do, and would it help them to ever greater success?”. If your answer is “No”, then think very carefully whether you should do this or not.


Breakthrough Project Management embeds these characteristics in your project teams

  • Icon CCIn establishing a Project Alliance
    • You select your team as early as possible in the project
    • You put time, efforts and money into building the team
    • You eliminate individual (contractor) performance measures.  Financial reward depends on how well the project does, not on how well as contractor/supplier performed their part.
  • Icon CCPMPlanning and executing with CCPM
    • Embeds the relay runner mentality
    • Provides a clear up-to-date signal when the next runners can expect to start
    • Encourages tasks to ignore the plan, and just finish as soon as they can
    • Safety is shared, for everyone to use


If your projects are not using these methods, why not?  Add your comments below, and lets discuss…

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