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What Project Management and Pinball Games Have in Common

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In the following article I want to reflect a few of my project management experiences. Attention: could be a bit exaggerated and sarcastic, but there is a lot of truth!

The Beginning

Before you can play pinball, you have to throw in some money. It’s the same with projects. Most of the time, you need to budget for the project before it begins. This usually comes from the technical budget managers or management. And means the people who have initiated the project also have a high interest in the success of the project. So far so good!

Getting Started

Money is in and the first ball is released. Pull once – maybe pull through completely, maybe only up to a certain point, and off you go. The ball picks up speed and rolls rapidly towards the pitch. In projects, this is the so-called kick off. There, the project manager takes on the task of getting the ball rolling. For new projects, the enthusiasm is usually still quite high; everyone is highly motivated, everyone wants to do their best.

The Ball Starts Rolling

The thing about pinball is that the ball picks up speed, but you actually have no idea where it will land or what happens next. Sure, the more experience you have, the more often you play pinball, the more likely you are to guess the track and landing points. But it’s just a guess, because on the way there are many unpredictable factors. If the ball bounces the wrong way, it’s over and done with. No one knows, or can predict, which course the silver bullet will take. That’s why a pinball player will never plan anything except a reasonably focused start. Then he waits to see what happens.

This is a little bit different in project management. Despite the introduction of agile methods, projects are usually planned and done in a very classic way according to the good old waterfall method. Which means, I determine at the start what has happened, when it’s happened and where it’s happened. Once a phase is complete (with the result set), I then move on to the next phase. And so on and so forth, across different milestones, right up to the end of the project. So that’s a little bit like pinballing – planning exactly where and when the ball bounces, how many points are scored (= milestones), and what the order is until the ball eventually goes out.

Act and React

The pinball player is waiting to see what happens. He knows that the ball does not take a predictable path and is always ready to react accordingly. Does the ball fly back and forth between the bumpers? You don’t stop; you hold on and take the small success quickly. Does the ball unexpectedly jump towards one of the flippers? React quickly and bring the ball back into play. In an emergency, tug on the pinball machine and push to nuance the direction of the ball.  Just don’t tilt!

Business projects are very often geared to the very big goals and results. You often want to break the record on the pinball machine and do it as fast as possible. The small scores are not satisfying. But it is precisely the small successes that decide on the overall score in the end.

Long-term project planning also loses many opportunities to act quickly and flexibly. In waterfall projects this means considerable effort for new planning. Not to mention that you would have to admit mistakes in the planning in the first place.

The Right Hits

Even though every hit scores points, every pinball player knows exactly where to get the highest score. He tries to hit it every time. Why does he know this? He knows the pinball machine. He sees the structure, knows traps, paths, and points of individual hit contacts. Like a golfer who checks the green for bumps every time he putts. For the pinball player, the game is completely transparent.

Process Transparency and Agility

Projects in companies, especially when it comes to changes in processes, usually start without having this transparency. Project leader and team go on a path, which they do not know, and also cannot control. A common reason for the failure of projects is that the effort to analyze actual situations is not made at all, or not scheduled but must be made later which takes time and budget. This often means that projects go off in a silo instead of going hand in hand with business process management, which can provide the necessary transparency and a sound basis for the project.

The Next Ball Please

Yes, at some point the first ball rolls out. For most pinball games this is not a big deal, because you have several balls per game. So, shoot the next ball. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury project managers usually have. When the budget is exhausted, there is usually no room to really keep the project alive. The project dies or you must live with the results achieved so far. No one is really satisfied.

Conclusion

As is required with pinball, businesses should be a bit more agile with their projects. The right funding is necessary, and everyone should start the game knowing that there will be setbacks along the way. This requires quick reflexes in order to get fast, visible results that motivate and lead the project team toward the big picture.  Last but not least: without business processes, transparency and a solid foundation, it will always be difficult to set the high score and achieve project time, budget and quality goals.

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