A hike gone awry as an analogy for Troubled Project Leadership

photoframeI have two fortune cookie fortunes on my desk at home – “promise only what you can deliver” and “now is a good time to finish up old tasks.”  They are taped to the bottom of a picture frame with a picture of my wife and I from the day that she had a catastrophic accident hiking in the mountains. 

We were hiking “Bow Peak” with a friend in the middle of the summer and  decided to summit the peak.  When we reached the peak, we realized that there were three paths down, but we had no guidance as to which path to take.   Our goal was to get to the base of the summit, which connected to the safe path down.  The first path was the one we came up, and it was all scree.  We didn’t really have the right gear to descend safely.  The second path was down a rock chute to a wide open path, and we would have to walk an extra 15 km to get to the base of the summit.  The third path was also down the rock chute, but it turned to a side of the mountain that we could not see.  What we could see was that it was a shorter route and would take us over some less dangerous scree to get us back to the base of the summit.

As a group, we identified the problem, recognized the constraints, discussed the risks of each path, and then chose the third path for our descent.  Before we began, we agreed on some of our guiding principles for descending – such as only one person in the chute at a time so as to avoid being hit by tumbling rocks.

During our descent, we came across a part of the path that was previously unknown – we had to traverse and descend a small glacial formation.  I went first, and having experience snowboarding, sat down on my heels and enjoyed the 60 foot slide.  My wife (then girlfriend) went next, but did not have the same experience.  She slid out of control and ended up breaking two teeth and puncturing her lip on a flat top rock.  As she was sliding, I was trying to give her all of my knowledge of how to control the uncontrolled descent by yelling four words – “dig in your heels.”  She yelled back “I am! I am!”  I didn’t offer her how to do so, or what else to do with her body when she was doing so.  And so, as she was sliding, I was sprinting across the base of the ice to catch her before she hurt herself.  I was too late, and we ended up spending the night in hospital followed by the next morning with a dentist to perform some emergency repairs.  The final result was that she endured 20 stitches in her lower lip and now has 2 false teeth.  While she will still come hiking, she is not as exuberant to go as she once was.

Our friend – the one with the med kit – ended up taking the “safe” route down by walking down the side of the glacier where it was primarily slush.

I have never forgiven myself for that accident, but have never thought about the leadership lesson associated with it.  In the short time span of her fall, I could not even begin to communicate the depth of my experience to ensure that she would be successful with her journey.  I had just assumed that it would be fine if I showed her how to do it.  When I saw she wasn’t getting it, I started yelling louder hoping she would get it.

By reflecting on this hiking experience, I now understand some of the more tumultuous projects that I have managed and participated on:

  1. As we prepared for our descent, we discussed our guiding principles for descending.  Creating a shared vision through detailed planning is the logical way to get a team ready to move forward with a project.  However, I have observed, and participated on, project teams that just move forward without considering what could go wrong.
  2. Project teams have disparate skill sets.  While some members may be perfectly happy to “descend the glacier”, others may not be.  Ensure that teams have a safe path so as to move forward without getting hurt.
  3. When the pressure is high and time is short, yelling does not help anything.

My lesson to be applied is thus:

  1. Be deliberate with your plans
  2. Consider skill sets
  3. Having someone with experience walking the path can provide helpful guidance, but they do not necessarily add value when they are “in charge”

Long hikes are a lot like projects.  To descend the mountain safely, you need to honestly assess team skills, previous experience, and know how to prevent catastrophic accidents.  Never walk the path blindly.

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About Jason H Zalmanowitz
I am a nerdy Management Consultant / Project Manager with a MBA, have spent the majority of my career working for consulting firms in Calgary, and I race in triathlons because of (and thanks to) my wife. As a Project Manager, I have managed field implementations, strategy development projects, software development projects, and hardware implementation projects. As a consultant, I have helped companies articulate how and why they are going to implement and interact with sustaining technology to support their business.

2 Responses to A hike gone awry as an analogy for Troubled Project Leadership

  1. normanspears says:

    Elvis Cooper pointed me to a related discussion on Quora (you need register to see the whole discussion): http://www.quora.com/Engineering-Management/Why-are-software-development-task-estimations-regularly-off-by-a-factor-of-2-3 Your comment about walking blindly is well illustrated, and is a very common cause of estimation error and troubled teams. Many comments in the discussion at Quora, including the distinction between physical engineering and knowledge work. I think if you’re over budget by a factor of 3, that counts as a safety issue.

    • jzalmanowitz says:

      Hmm… I like it. It’s always interesting to see the analogous nature of work and life, and how it manifests for different people.

      Thanks for the great comment, Norman.

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