Lately, my partner and I have found ourselves lost in the high desert of Southern California on a regular basis. Although experienced hikers, we are new to the desert and have learned, often the hard way, that the skills we honed in other parts of the U.S. don’t always work well here. The upshot is we've learned a lot about finding our way when we are lost. These wayfinding lessons have proven to be useful in many areas of my life — including my work as a project manager. If you find yourself leading a project that’s gotten off course, the tips below may be just what you need to get back on track.
In a new environment, act accordingly. No matter how experienced you are, when operating in novel conditions, it’s wise to act like a beginner. In our hiking experience, it took us a while to learn this. Although we had all the essential tools, our normal practices proved insufficient for desert trails, which are not particularly well-marked and can easily blend into the surrounding landscape. We also needed to learn the ‘local language’ — many of our missteps involved misreading trail markers.
If you are a project manager working for the first time with a team, sponsor and/or organization calibrate your methods to your new environment and invest quality time in learning the culture. This will help to ensure you chart an accurate course and make you more likely to recognize warning signs when they arise.
Admit you are lost. This will take time...you'll have to reach the point where the pain of denial is greater than that of acceptance. For example, on a recent hike, we found that even though what we were seeing didn’t match our planned route, we tried REALLY HARD to make it match up. "The trail must be here! We just aren’t seeing it!” The trail wasn’t there, because we weren’t where we thought we were. When we finally admitted we were lost, our efforts to find our way became much more productive.
As a project manager, if your metrics or your team are hinting that the project has wandered into parts unknown, talk about it. Have a serious and open conversation with your team. It’s only when you admit you are lost, hopefully as a full project team, that you can start doing something about it.
Identify your current location. You can't get back on track, until you know where you are. If you are really lost, this may be tricky. Our hiking experience taught us two methods for identifying our position when lost. First, we compare what we see (and/or hear) to our map to pinpoint our location. Second, we access objective, external information. On our recent hike, we weren’t in the right mental space to use the first method. (It's hard, but sometimes the only choice.) Luckily for us, we hit an area where we got just enough cell service to find our location using Google maps. Once we had the name of a nearby service road, our location on our trail map became obvious — in this case, everything really did match up.
Similarly, project managers need to gather ‘on the ground’ information to accurately identify the current state of the project when it’s off track. This will most likely involve having candid conversations with team members and stakeholders. The closer your sources are to the action, the better. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you can also leverage external experts to give you an objective assessment of your current state. With this information, you can then begin to chart a course from where you are to where you want to be.
Commit to active learning. When you are lost, the sole focus of your effort should be finding your way again. The best way to do this is to learn in the moment and act on that learning. (At this point, assigning accountability is not productive or motivating.) On our hike, once we pinpointed our actual location, we immediately started to identify where we might have gone wrong. We also brainstormed new practices to try out on our return trip. We explicitly tracked our mileage and checked our position against the map every half-mile. When we reached the places where we initially made wrong turns, we took time to identify our specific mistakes. (In one case, we didn’t pay attention to a trail marker — a boulder. In the other, we relied on the trail marker when we should have relied on our map.)
When things go sideways on a project, our instinct as project managers may be to tighten the reigns and dictate the methods. However, engaging the entire team in identifying lessons and better practices can be a source of motivation and momentum, both of which you’ll need to turn the project around. Be sure the team immediately acts on its learning — just talking about lessons and practices doesn’t actually do much good!
Take care of yourself. You need your wits about you when you are wayfinding. On our hike, I noticed I was hungry just about the same time we became aware we were lost. My partner wasn’t hungry at all. I tried to brush off my hunger and continued for another 45 minutes. I finally realized I wasn’t helping the cause, I was just getting more irritable and hard to work with. So, I stopped and ate. I was a much more productive member of the team after that.
Likewise, as a project manager, it’s important not to confuse deprivation with dedication, especially when your project is in trouble. Sleep, eat and take a break — maybe even smile a bit. Your team will thank you for it.
Remain confident. You will find your way. Our hiking experience taught us that getting lost can be a blow to our confidence…"We made this mistake, maybe we will make others?!" Possible. But we found, it's just as likely that our good experience and skill will help us find our way again.
I once read that when lost, many people give up within five miles of their destination. If your project is off course and you have trouble finding the way forward, before you throw your hands up and quit, remind yourself that you are good at what you do. And go five more miles.