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8 lessons IT Project Teams can learn from Chatsworth International Horse Trials

Blog by Nicol Cutts, Head of Projects, Professional Services at Stoneseed.

As I sat, musing about what to write for this very highbrow and important Stoneseed IT Project Management blog, my eyes caught sight of my tickets to Chatsworth International Horse Trials. I allowed the tickets to distract me, I remembered past events and the beautiful relationship between rider and horse, the multi-skills that lead competitors to succeed at the different disciplines and the resilience needed to complete what can be a gruelling schedule!

“Whooooooooooooah!” I thought.

That’s the blog! What IT Project Teams Can Learn from Horse Trials!

And, before my editor had been given the chance to say “neigh” (it’s four faults for a refusal), I’d written this!! So, saddle up, and enjoy the ride.

There are unexpected parallels even if, at first blush, horse trials and IT Project Management may seem worlds apart – I was struck by many similarities in the principles, the methods and the challenges.


Quickly, let’s compare the two.

Horse trials, aka eventing, is a series of equestrian events that test the skill, discipline, stamina, athleticism, and partnership between a horse and rider across three disciplines: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. Despite still often being called ‘three-day eventing’, trials now usually take place over four days, as the dressage phase takes two days to complete (something taking longer than expected is a concept familiar to most IT Project Managers, CIOs, and stakeholders!)

For the benefit of any equestrians, who’ve stumbled across this blog by mistake, IT Project Management is the strategic planning, execution, and delivery of complex technology projects that drive business change within organisations.

Both require structured planning, teamwork, adaptability, risk management, and performance evaluation!

I’m chomping at the bit now! So, don’t be judgey, get off your high horse, aaaaaand we’re off…

8 Lessons IT Project Teams Can Learn from Horse Trials.

1 – Mastery of multi-skill!

Have you ever been to a horse trials? The uninitiated might think that each rider’s team has three separate horses, so diverse are the disciplines. The truth is that the same horse competes in the cross country, the show jumping and (as a non-horsey guest of mine once put it) the horse dancing – or dressage.

IT Project Management also requires multiskilled all-rounders (even if, like the horses they may be more adept at one discipline than another), and clients accessing talent via Stoneseed’s PMaaS (Project Management as a Service) are often looking for such a resource.

Other times they need a specific talent to fill a specific gap. And we can help with that too!

Imagine if riders at Horse Trials could cheat, swap out their Cross-Country winning Anglo-Arabian horse (with its stamina, strength, and good jumping abilities), for a Dutch Warmblood (known for intelligence, grace, and athleticism, consistently the best scorers in dressage competitions, and several Olympic gold medals associated with them). They’d be disqualified!

In IT Project Management, we have no such restrictions reining us in! PMaaS can deliver the all-rounder or the specialist – whatever your project needs – ensuring you always have a stable team!

2 – The Need for Clear Objectives and Meticulous Planning

In both horse trials and IT Project Management, success starts with establishing clear objectives and meticulous planning. At the trials, riders map out their course, even walking the cross-country course on foot beforehand. Similarly, IT Project Managers must create detailed project plans, scope, timelines, and milestones.

Imagine taking this well-defined course map away from either endeavour! How soon before you’d risk veering off course, falling short of intended goals or even being unseated altogether – thrown off into a muddy heap?!

Setting the course for success is vital … but things do go wrong…

3 – Knowing How to Get Back on Course

Scope creep, supply chain delays, talent sickness … there many ways that an IT Project can gallop off course. This happens with riders too, and I am always amazed by the discipline, poise, and resilience they show when they get back in the saddle, recover after shaving the top off a showjumping fence or find their way back into a dressage routine after a miss-step!

IT Project Managers have to show similar resilience and there are just as many unpredictable events that can spook your project and stakeholder confidence. Portfolio management platforms, like Stoneseed’s P3MO, are great for tracking slippage and turning them into milestones and maintaining a transparent overview of your projects. Stoneseed’s PMaaS is the perfect way to guarantee you have the human resources that you need.

4 – Harnessing Collaboration and Communication

Effective teamwork and communication are vital for both rider and Project Manager! In horse trials, the collaboration between rider and horse is obvious but there are also the trainers, support staff and a range of other key players that contribute to successful performances.

Similarly, in IT projects, cross-functional teams, stakeholders, and management rely on the ability to collaborate effectively to deliver project objectives. Clear and timely communication ensures that everyone is aligned, breeding a culture of cohesion, and mitigating the risk of misunderstanding. Stoneseed’s P3MO portfolio management platform has collaboration running through its DNA, ensuring you get to harness those complementary talents and strengths that make a great team.

5 – Problem-Solving, Adaptability and Navigating the Unforeseeable

Both horse trials and IT projects are susceptible to the occasional unexpected challenge or disruption. The unpredictable British weather can change the terrain and alter the dynamics of a horse trial cross-country course in a few short minutes, necessitating a swift response, adaptation, and problem-solving skills from the rider.

In IT Project Management, we too must be agile and flexible to respond to changing requirements, supply chain issues, technological blips, market shifts, delayed interdependencies, staff absences, etc. The ability to think on the hoof, pivot like a Friesian, and find creative solutions is as much a trait of IT Project success as it is at the Horse Trials.

6 – Risk Management and Contingency Planning

Even on a sunny, clear day, a rider cannot know exactly what lies beyond a cross-country fence or on the other side of a water jump so protocols, like course marshals, are in place to ensure safe passage.

In IT Project Management, we must have the equivalent of marshals in place to avoid a ‘mare’ and mitigate the unexpected, as much possible, we do this through good governance and effective contingency planning. Stoneseed’s P3MO platform and PMO advisory services can help with this. Risk assessment, mitigation strategies, and contingency planning are essential in anticipating and, what’s more, addressing potential roadblocks that could stirrup trouble for your IT project.

6 – Experience Counts

When you’ve been to as many horse trials as I have, you hear the same names read out across the echoey public address system – Germany’s Michael Jung, Great Britain’s Nicola Wilson, New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson, etc, and, more often than not, these are the names that are top of the leader board.

Stoneseed’s PMaaS team have a similar pedigree, are experienced across multiple technology solutions, sectors and industries, and work on all types of projects and programmes such as Business Change, Transformation, Infrastructure, Digital and IT Project Delivery. Stoneseed’s team of multi-industry, multi-sector experienced PMO experts have the experience to craft a P3MO platform that exactly suits your need.

7 – Rarely The Same Event Twice

Chatsworth, Burleigh House, Badminton, Blenheim… turn up at each of these events with exactly the same game plan and you’re unlikely to win! From the obvious differences between the terrain on the cross country, to more subtle nuances that alter the showjumping and dressage arenas between the events, every horse trials event is unique.

IT Projects can be like that, and it would be naïve to think otherwise! A project’s unique needs must be identified and addressed, for instance, you may need a Business Analyst on one project having managed without one on your last three, a BA would be an expensive addition to your headcount, if they were not needed three quarters of the time. You could access a BA via Stoneseed’s Business Analysis as a Service (BAaaS) for as long as you need them!

8 – Excellence in Execution, Ongoing Performance Evaluation AND CELEBRATE!!

Execution, preparation, and performance coming together is what it’s all about in both horse trials and IT projects.

I love watching a rider and their horse execute each phase of a horse trial with precision, poise and finesse almost as much as seeing projects I work with meet deadlines, deliverables, and nail quality standards.

Ongoing performance evaluation and feedback loops are vital for identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. Continuous learning, marginal gains and refinement of technique can lead to unbridled success.

And lastly, be sure to celebrate project success. You deserve YOUR rosette moment!!

In conclusion, structured planning, teamwork, adaptability, risk management, and performance evaluation are key to both our fields, IT project professionals can glean valuable lessons from horse trials, and vice versa.

Whether you’re navigating a challenging cross-country course at Chatsworth or steering a complex IT project to delivery into service and completion, strategic thinking, collaboration, and resilience, in the mane, will deliver success and desired outcomes.

You might even … end up with a colt following! (Enough now – Ed)

Find out more about Stoneseed’s Project Services

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