I’m alright and nobody worry ’bout me
Why you got to gimme a fight, can’t you just let me be?
These are the unmistakable opening lines of the theme song to Caddyshack. As a fan of slapstick comedy and of the game of golf, I have to rate it as one of the classic movies from the 80’s.
One of the benefits of my recent career changes was to have a little more flexibility in my schedule; a flexibility that would allow me to spend more time with my family. Last week, I had the chance to exercise that flexibility and booked a round of golf with my oldest daughter and one of her friends. With my less than spectacular golf skills, I highly suspected there could be a slapstick moment on the course.
It was a typical winter day in Central Texas – sunny, not hot but not cold, not windy – a day my friends in northern climates couldn’t even imagine exists in late January. After working from the world headquarters of Nice Socks Consulting for the morning, I headed to our home course at Avery Ranch Golf to meet them when they got out of school that afternoon. I was excited to spend some quality time with her before she heads off to a college yet to be determined later this year.
The course was not busy so we were excited about enjoying a casual round without anyone pressing on us. As we teed up on the first hole, little did I know that our round would be far from casual. My daughter’s drive pushed a little right of the fairway, ending up on a slight slope near a small outcropping of limestone just to the front and right of where her ball landed. She was about 120 yards from the green and confident she could be on the green in regulation. Unfortunately, the 2nd shot did not go as planned. Her ball hit the rock outcropping (yes, she let the club face open up) and bounced directly back, striking her in the head.
At first I was not sure what had just happened. I was watching for the flight of the ball and when I did not see the ball in the air, turned around to see her kneeling on the ground. She had her hand on her forehead and when she moved her hand, I saw the blood. Lots of blood. I ran to my cart and grabbed a golf towel to apply pressure and slow down the bleeding. I won’t go into the gory details of the next few hours. However, I will let you know that after 7 stitches expertly applied by a plastic surgeon, she was all good. No concussion. No life altering injury. Just a nasty wound that will heal and hopefully leave nothing but a faint scar.
As I am apt to do, once I knew for certain that this incident was not going to result in long-lasting impact on my daughter’s health and well-being, I started to think about what I could learn from this life event. At first my mind went to thinking about being prepared for the unexpected. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see that the potential for a project management lesson to come out of this unfortunate event. This angle is probably due to the fact that my first consulting engagement since going out on my own is focused on driving a significant solution platform rationalization project.
Most projects start off with a well thought out plan with well-defined milestones and details on the steps required to meet those milestones. The approach to a round of golf is similar. You know the par on each hole and know in general where you need each shot to go in order to meet or beat par. But we all know that not everything goes according to plan on the course nor in the office. Therefore, you have to be able to adjust as the round unfolds; you have to manage the round, just like you have to manage a project.
In the case of my daughter, she had planned for her tee shot to go up the right side of the fairway and land 100-110 yards from the middle of the green. She then planned to hit a nice easy approach shot into the green where she would do no worse than two putt and make par or better. Instead her tee shot went a little further right than expected and landed in the rough, on uneven ground, near an outcropping of rock, about 10 yards shorter than expected. Her second shot then proceeded to hit the rock outcropping and end her round prematurely after two strokes.
When assessing what to do after that first shot, she had five options. One option was to play the ball as is and go for the green to get back on plan. The second option was to chip out onto the fairway giving up distance to have a much better position for her next shot. The other options (per rule 28 of the Rules of Golf) involved declaring the ball unplayable and 1) going back to point of her first shot and hit again under penalty of stroke and distance per rule 27-1; 2) taking a one stroke penalty and dropping a ball behind the point where the ball lay; or 3) taking a one stroke penalty and dropping a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball lay, but not nearer the hole.
The execution against her project plan for Hole #1 was off-track after her drive. In this case, she decided to take an action to get back on plan with one swift action versus incurring an additional stroke. I had seen her make similar shots from similar positions on that very hole before, so in the moment I did not suggest she do otherwise. Sadly, that swift action ended the round and resulted in a trip to the ER.
In hindsight, the safer more practical play would have been to give up distance and punch it into the fairway to set-up her 3rd shot or perhaps declaring the ball unplayable and taking a drop with a penalty stroke. In either scenario, she would have likely had a ball on the green sitting 3 with a chance to sink a putt for par or at worse bogey.
She made a decision to go for the green rather than take the less risky option of taking an extra stroke on the hole. While the reward for going for the green was large, so was the risks. They say hindsight is 20/20, and in this case I can’t help but second guess not suggesting she choose another option.
Those same decision points haunt project managers. No matter how well-managed, there are usually issues arise that could potential get a project “off plan.” Many of those issues are minor and can easily, without introducing more risks into the project, be identified and addressed quickly. But at times the issues appear abruptly and are significant and can only be solved by either taking a risky bold action that could get your project back on plan in one swift action but also introduce risks of incurring further negative impact to the project (i.e. your project ends up in the ER); or taking a less risky action that has some short-term negative impact (i.e. you take another stroke on the hole) but sets your project up for long-term success.
In the early days of my career I was usually inclined to “go for the green” when faced with one of those decisions as a manager. But as I gained experienced, I learned that sometimes taking the penalty stroke or just punching out to the fairway is the better course of action. As a project manager (or any kind of manager for that matter) you have to assess the risks presented you and make a decision that gives you the best chance of achieving the ultimate objective of the project. Sometimes that means going for the green and other times it means taking a penalty stroke. The main thing is to keep yourself and your project out of the ER.