do not be a front rudder

some days ago i spent the afternoon at a nearby lake with a few friends of mine. watching the ships going in and out we asked ourselves the quite silly question of why there are no ships with a front rudder. talking to some sailors at the nearby marina, several explanations such as loss of control during a turn, poor efficiency, unsighted obstacles under water and shoddy stability of the boat popped up.

besides being a stupid idea anyway, it kept me thinking. front rudder ships don't really exist in real life, but there is a story of a project manager i had been working with which sounds too similar to this concept.

this project manager had an important assignment of delivering a vital project at his company. he was passionate about the project, and delivering the project in time and budget would help his visibility and success in the company.

just like the front rudder he was the first to jump into the project, led the way and planned every task for every project member. daily meetings and status checks were established, a very detailed project plan had to be followed. every task was split up perfectly between developers, architects, sysadmins, documentation and qa staff. every unforeseen change had to be reported directly and immediately to him.

it didn't took long until the first unforeseen issues popped up. the project manager instantly included these issues in his task list and altered the project plan accordingly. then he reassigned people to handle these tasks. however, these changes did bring other issues along. after updating and reassigning people again, new dependencies and issues emerged. and so, the very detailed plan slowly broke apart.

overhauling the plan and increasing the number of meetings and status updates were his prompt reactions. no matter the cost he wanted his team to complete the project in time. but it was clear to the team, that the proposed project plan and reality have drifted apart too far.

just a few weeks into the project, after desperately trying to fix the project plan, managing the people and keeping up-to-date with issues, problems and plan changes he burnt out. he was the front rudder in a rough sea, frantically trying to steer his ship in the right direction.

it is quite ironic, that the same reasons why there aren't any boats with a front rudder also apply to project management. in this story, the project manager lost control of his team while trying to solve the issues the project was bringing along. but he also turned out to be the bottleneck of the project as every issue and task needed to go over his desk. unforeseen problems finally brought him and the project to fall. all resulting in a insecure team, not knowing if they should follow the plan or the pressing problems on their desk.

if i could give an advice to a project manager, it would be to not be a front rudder. a project manager needs to depict the general direction, keep the team together and to steer it away from danger. meticulously planning every detail is not his job, people in his team are much more skilled in their area of expertise than he will ever be.

and so the best project manager is the seemingly absent leader, who is providing room for his team and silently guiding his team away from danger and into the calm sea of success.

thanks to ruben vermeersch and seif lotfy for reading drafts of this.