Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No leadership dooms Biggest Loser competition

It amazes me to see how a simple project can be doomed by the lack of a clear leader.

Last night's 'Biggest Loser' featured a simple project. The team had to construct a pontoon bridge out of a stack of large, heavy, inflatable rafts that could be attached to each other to reach an island in the middle of a river. On the island was another stack of rafts with which they had to construct another bridge to reach the other side of the river.

Their rival team had already completed this task and had set the time to beat of 39 minutes.

The team were given a few minutes to strategize and it became clear immediately that they were going to fail. Many people asserted their right to be the leader but no-one allowed themselves to be led by any others. I saw several reasons why no leaders emerged:

1) The game is set up to have the contestants compete against each other in the long run so there was a lack of trust in the short run
2) There was no one vocal leader who asserted their leadership at the beginning
3) Many different people put forward different strategies but no one grasped anyone else's strategy

When the time for planning had ended and the horn sounded to start the competetion, all the contestants knew and even said out loud that they had no strategy. Yet they all started running around with their own plans to complete the project. A couple of minutes of focused planning would have solved this but they all ran straight to their jobs, using competing strategies and getting in each other's way. At times some were standing around waiting for others to do things, some were floating rafts, others were dragging them.

There was no communication before or during the project. People were shouting competing commands but no one was listening to anyone else.

What lessons can we get from this episode?

A) If no clear leader is assigned or emerges during the planning session, you must take the reins yourself or advance the leadership of the person you think is most suited for the job. This leader must be respected enough by the group to allow them to follow him/her for the duration of the project.
B) Even if you are competing with your peers in the long run for that promotion, that key project, that bonus, don't let this get in the way of short-term goals like project success. If the project fails, another PM may get blamed giving you a short-term gain but you also might all be out of a job.
C) Spend enough time to plan the project so that you have no-one working at cross-purposes, even if that time is taking away some of the execution time of the project. You will finish the project earlier in the long run.
Communication means listening to others, not just talking. The old adage of two ears and one mouth applies to project management.


  1. On Survivor, even thought they compete individually at the end, they are mainly competing as a group.
    Starting out by setting ground rules about team-work and focussing competitive energy outside, instead of within the group (or company), could break through a barriers A&B.
    Would that be leadership - even if the person proposing the groundrules, or that there need to be team groundrules doesn't want to be the leader?

  2. We didn't see the leadership on this team until later in the season. But when his team re-entered the ranch, we saw the way Justin inspired them. He called them all his family and they all pulled together toward a common goal. And the goal wasn't that one of them win the million dollars, it was that they all lose the weight they wanted to.
    This season was all about self-sacrifice and we saw that leadership translate onto the older generation as we saw them volunteer themselves off so that the younger players could continue their journey and get to their goals.
    It was a truly inspiring season for me. (As I sat on the couch eating my ice-cream)