Stepping into the Ring: What do Boxing and Project Management have in Common?20 Apr 2021
Image by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash
As former pro boxer Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!”
I think what he meant was that while you may have planned for the unexpected, it’s hard to plan for every possibility. When something shocking actually happens (and in boxing, it happens a lot), you have to be ready to change your approach, pivot in a heartbeat and quickly counter. If you don’t, chances are you may not remember too much of what happens next! I have personally experienced this as an amateur boxer during my younger days in Singapore.
I love boxing as a sport, so it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to sit down with the impressive former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Olympic Gold medalist, philanthropist and entrepreneur, Dr. Wladimir Klitscho, as part of PXMPO during PMI’s Virtual Experience Series.
We had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation, touching on everything from the importance of personal ambitions and drive, to people-centric “power skills.” He also shared his journey following his retirement from the ring; he reinvented himself to tackle new challenges in the world of business and philanthropy.
Since 2016, Wladimir has been sharing his approach to “challenge management” with students from around the world and has developed his own “F.A.C.E. the Challenge” method—a four-step process to develop willpower, with a focus on agility, coordination and endurance.
You might be wondering: well that’s all interesting, but what does this have to do with project management?!
As both an avid boxing fan and PMI’s lead advocate for the project management profession, I’ve found some intersections.... in ways you may not immediately expect.
Mohammed Ali once said “I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I (done) handcuffed lightning. And (I’ve) thrown thunder in jail.” For all you project managers out there who have grappled with complexities and uncertainties (not to mention a lack of time or budget resources), Ali’s quote may resonate.
I wanted to share a few key take-aways as I reflected on my conversation with Wladimir:
In April 2017 Wladimir faced Anthony Joshua, the undefeated British reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World on his home turf, Wembley Stadium, London, in front of 100,000 hostile and vocal fans—including myself.
Yes, I was there for this monumental battle!
Both boxers were in peak form—you could see that there wasn’t an ounce of doubt in either of them as they faced off against each other. The atmosphere was electric, and the audience was mesmerized, eyes wide open in anticipation.
Wladimir and Joshua’s buildup to the fight had probably begun six months prior. As Wladimir told me, HE was indeed, “the project.” The Wladimir camp had trainers, physios, nutritionists, doctors, cardiologists, strategists, sparring partners, hands specialists, dietitians, meditation gurus, mentors and more—all working together to ensure that over the next six months their “project” reached maximum form at exactly the right time—the day of the fight.
To do this, they had the strictest of regimes to follow, too much weight lifting—you miss your target, too little food—you miss your target, too much sparring in the ring—you miss your target!! The training manager (“the project manager”) coordinates all the preparation to the finest detail. The approach is structured and predefined. It follows a strict methodology and has a defined outcome, at a specific time. In essence, his team used a “waterfall technique” to prepare for the biggest fight of Wladimir’s life: a sequential and linear process, in which you know what specific outcome you want to reach and what you need to do to get there.
Then, the big day arrived. Wladimir had run a specific number of miles, performed specific workouts, sparred with some of the best, honed his skills, eaten specific foods and researched his opponent’s moves until he knew everything there was to know. Time is up. This is it. Wladimir, “the project” was ready; bringing the full sum of his grit, knowledge and training into the ring…. But what if he encountered the unexpected?
Anthony Joshua hadn’t been sitting idle; he also had his project team preparing him, in similar fashion, with a similar expected outcome and similar training regime. Each of them equally prepared and ready to fight for the coveted title of “Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.”
The boxers come together, sounding each other out…. throwing leading punches, establishing position, laying their foundation and intent. At the same time, they observe their opponents’ tactics, weaknesses and unique style. The months of training and strategy begin to pay off. After three minutes, the bell signifies the end of the round, and each boxer returns to his corner where his team awaits.
The next minute is filled with frenetic activity as the team assesses what was learned and what may need to change. They ask themselves, do we stick to the game plan? Do we change our strategy? The short one-minute break in the corner is akin to an “Agile Retrospective”—an evaluation of what just happened in that three-minute round, or sprint, and what to do in the next sprint. The next round may be the same…. or it could be different…. the bell goes and off we go again….
The boxers are not boxing as anticipated, cautious of each other’s approach. New tactics are needed and in real time. Another pivot in the strategy, a new angle, a new approach. We go into another retrospective. It’s not easy, yet there are potentially thirteen more sprints to go! Thirteen retrospectives to get it right.
There is a clear lesson here if you put yourself in Wladimir’s shoes: if you’re too beholden to a pre-ordained plan of action when conditions have changed, you can find yourself in deep trouble. Agility is now firmly “the dish of the day” and as the rounds go on, you begin to learn more of your opponent’s approach while you adapt and counter, pivot and change. You draw your opponent in and attack their weaknesses while defending the inevitable onslaught against your own weaknesses. In short, you become more agile.
Things have changed from the time you first entered into the ring. Each round/sprint is different—sometimes you are moving forward, sometimes you are covering up in defense. However, the desired outcome remains the same. It is the subtle changes in approach that’s keeping both fighters in the game.
Therein lies a couple of intersections between the world of the boxer and that of the project manager.
They each use the tools, resources, expertise and methods available to get the job done. Yet, they need also to pivot and change when the need arises. But to even embark and maintain such endeavors takes more than simple ability, ambition and technique.
In my discussion with Wladimir, we went on to talk about how he was able to pivot from boxing to build a successful career helping others fulfill their dreams and overcome personal challenges. He advocated that humanistic power skills truly make the difference. At PMI, we often talk about the importance of these capabilities—qualities like collaborative leadership, empathy and an innovative “can do” mindset. Your super-powers.
Our belief is whilst technology and innovation can automate more routine parts of work, humanistic skills—the stuff we might have called “soft skills” in the past—have become even more important. As Wladimir said in our conversation, “I’ve learned that principles of focus, agility, coordination and endurance are the same principles that any person needs in any field of activity.”
The same is true on an individual level; you can prepare and train, but the ultimate distinguishing factor may be your inner reservoirs of strengths and determination, as you draw on your emotions, stamina and grit.
I had a great time chatting about all this with Wladimir. He is an inspirational role model for anyone seeking to bounce back from failures and stay focused on a goal over the long term.
After all, it’s not about how hard you hit—it’s about how you get back up once you get hit.