The Top 10 Things I Learned about Project Management from American Idol

By Rick Griffin and Conrad Imel

Whether you thought Taylor Hicks was the rightful winner this year or that Katherine McPhee was the better performer, the phenomenon of American Idol provides an opportunity to look at what it takes to be a winner. The concept is very simple: Bring unknown talent to the television stage and give someone a chance at stardom. Underneath that simple concept are a number of tactics that contribute to the success of the show. Let’s take those lessons from American Idol and apply them to our favorite vocation as we once again publish a project management top ten list.

1) Know what works and stick with it

There is a proven framework to American Idol. The season begins with auditions around the country, where the judges see the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some will move on to Hollywood where the contestants are pared down and the audience has the opportunity to vote for their favorites and crown the American Idol. This framework produces the ratings that producers like; the framework will not change. A project manager needs to know and apply the same concept. What has worked in the past? How can those concepts be applied to my current project? While the specifics will change from project to project, you as a project manager know from experience the types of approaches and tactics that work. You need to maintain those practices regardless of what each individual project demands from you.

2) Know what changes need to be made

The framework may work year in and year out for American Idol, but within that framework some things need to change. Minor changes are made, but the “deliverables” remain the same. When you work on similar projects there may be a tendency to try to perform them the same way. While you know what has worked in the past, know that not everything will work in the future. As a project manager you need to be aware of the various factors involved in the project and learn how to adjust those factors for the benefit of the project. You should stick with what has worked in the past, but be mindful of the fact that adjustments will need to be made.

3) Keep the basics in mind

Idol judges may be harsh from time to time, but they know talent. They know what it takes to be a top performer. Flashy lights, style, and screaming fans may make for good television performance, but it is the core talent that the judges are looking for. The basics of singing are what will impress them. Without knowing the basics, no competitor will win the competition. The same principle applies when managing a project. The concepts in each project – the core skills – remain the same. As each new project brings you new challenges, do not abandon your basic skills and knowledge set. These are the skills that will carry you through the unexpected twists in a fancy, flashy project.

4) Make sure everyone knows their role

The roles on American Idol are clearly defined in advance and have been practiced quite nicely. The judges allow their unique personalities to contribute, but the chemistry of the three is central to the success of the show. Simon Cowell has the courage to face reality, even though it is sometimes harsh. Randy Jackson is the industry expert. He knows the talk (“hey dog”), understands the business, and has the connections. Paula Abdul is the nurturing, supportive, enthusiastic compassionate element of the team. If any of the judges steps out of his/her role, the audience is jolted. In order to avoid having your project team jolted, or worse, make sure that everyone knows their role. When teams begin to work outside of their roles your project will begin to run off course, over budget, and may incur overtime to complete your deliverables. By managing the team members to work within their roles, the project can stay focused on its goal, and the project manager can rest assured that each department is working on the tasks given to them.

5) Be mindful of the soft skills

Managers often overlook soft skills. Soft skills are not a physical deliverable; they are intangible and their results are immeasurable. Despite that, soft skills are incredibly important to the success of the project. In American Idol, Paula Abdul often fills the “soft skills role.” Abdul focuses on creating an environment of acceptance and support. She is willing to challenge Cowell’s directness and provides the necessary balance to his “driven to the end goal” aspect of the show. While the project manager needs to be mindful of the goals of the project, those goals will never be reached if the manager cannot keep the staff focused. That’s where soft skills are important. The project team needs to be encouraged, reminded of their importance, and rewarded for meeting the milestones of the project. Without soft skills, a project will never be as successful as it could be.

6) Even adversaries can work together

American Idol demonstrates that conflict can be beneficial as long as it is managed. The conflict between the judges could easily get out of hand, but the management of it is done so as not to truly offend. The conflict between the contestants adds an element of drama to the show, but in the end, they support each other. When a contestant is placed “in the bottom three” or when one is voted off the show, the others offer their support. Adversaries exist in the world of project management as well, but just like in American Idol, adversaries can contribute to the success of the project. The conflict caused by adversaries can result in the generation of different ideas and perspectives and reduce the possibility of the project’s stagnation. If managed appropriately, adversaries can help move the project forward.

7) Competition can be healthy

Competition and conflict is beneficial when managing a project. Pitting teams against each other in competition can help to improve the project. Like the Idol singers that push themselves to improve and step-up to the competition, you can use incentives to drive teams forward. Competition can be used to motivate teams and celebrate milestones throughout the project. Be cautious, though, that competition stays positive. Competition should be kept continually positive so that your staff does not have the outlook that something bad will happen if we don’t “win.” If one team becomes a winner, and another a loser, the “losing” team will not perform at its highest potential. By working positive competition into the project, your teams will be more motivated to perform at their highest level.

8) Help your team grow and improve

A large contributor to the show’s success is watching the contestants grow throughout the competition. From the tacky wardrobes and song selections of the auditions to the polished final episode, the evolution of some of the contestants is remarkable. However, they are not doing it on their own. Consultants, image-makers, rehearsals, and other support mechanisms to help these individuals grow are built into the American Idol process. As a project manager, you should have the same expectation of your team members, but they cannot do it on their own. You, like Idol producers, should give your team the tools necessary to grow. Continuing to challenge the team, and giving them the resources to meet those challenges will allow the team to grow and improve throughout the project.

9) Prepare the environment, not just the project

Remarkable communications and marketing are performed before, during, and after each Idol season. The level of readiness of the environment is tremendous. We know about the show in advance, the website is continuously updated and maintained, and the progress of the show is tracked and reported. Media reports are everywhere; there is hardly anyone that doesn’t know about the success of the show. The environment is important for a project manager as well. As you attempt to improve an organization through a project, you must know the current state of the organization. The work that needs to be done in the project will probably not succeed in an environment that isn’t ready. Prepare the environment for your changes and your project will have greater success.

10) Know and emphasize the target

American Idol does not end with the season finale. After the season is over, the winner receives a one million dollar recording contract with one of Cowell’s recording companies. Each contestant knows that they are not only competing to win the title of “American Idol,” but also to enhance their careers. In project management you must understand that your project does not accomplish only its direct result, but affects the organization as a whole. It is important to keep focused on those goals. As a project manager, you must keep your team aware of, and focused on, the overall business value they are in place to produce.

Whether you follow American Idol or detest it, there are lessons that can be drawn from this wildly successful format. Project Managers can do themselves well by applying the ideas that makes American Idol such a phenomenal success.

Rick Griffin is the Founder and CEO of Eaglespire Coaching, LLC, a company providing coaching, training, leadership development, and team building approaches to moving you to a life journey of choice. Eaglespire Coaching has clients across the globe that have roles in project management, executive leadership, corporate environments, entrepreneurial enterprises, and solo-preneurs. Rick can be reached at or 612-964-5963.

Conrad Imel works with MINDAVATION, a company providing project management services, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America. Mindavation can be reached via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).

The Mindavation Foundation is proud to donate 5% of profits towards development of youth leaders.
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