This post describes how paddling in a fog is often similar to the way projects are managed in organizations.
Although it was foggy we set off in our Kayak for a short paddle. We were armed with a nautical GPS - so we knew we could always find our way back even if the fog didn’t lift.
Although we were paddling on a route we knew well, the fog made it feel different. Like an adventure. It is how I normally feel at the start of a new project – when everything is new and unshaped.
We paddled quickly out to sea over the tall swells covered in foam. It felt both dangerous and exciting. And then we were in the main channel. We turned – to travel parallel to where the shore should be – a route we both knew well.
Around us the fog obscured every recognizable landmark. There were no buildings on the shore. No shore. No rocks. Enveloped in fog, all we could see was the swell immediately ahead.
At first I enjoyed the feeling of space. Of silence. Of being separated from the normal world. I didn’t know exactly where we were, or exactly where we were going to. But it didn’t matter. Every few minutes the fog horn would sound – this told me where the light house was – which was almost where we started from. A softer horn would announce a large boat – somewhere in the distance. I could tell we were making progress as the fog horn became softer and softer. But I couldn’t tell how fast or how far we’d paddled without being able to see any landmarks or milestones.
We paddled within our own bubble. Nature joined us. A blue bottle floated next to our kayak. A seal sailed in front of us. A school of dolphins glided past. Every so often the fog would slide back for an instant, revealing the top of lions head. Then the curtain of grey would descend again.
After an hour the novelty wore off. I was beginning to feel tired. I was paddling, and paddling. But it didn’t feel like we were making any progress. The swells increased in size. I was no longer enjoying the experience of being isolated in fog. I began to feel cold. So we turned around to head home.
As we turned I became disoriented. Instead of going back parallel to the shore, it felt like we were heading out to sea. I began to argue with my partner about our direction. He told me to relax. According to the GPS, we were traveling in the right direction. Luckily for me, he’d spent some time preparing for our trip. He’d scanned the map of our route into the GPS. He’d set way points. He’d programmed in critical points where we needed to turn to avoid crashing into rocks. He’d charged the batteries of the GPS the night before. So even though we couldn’t get feedback from our environment, the GPS would guide us safely home.
My job was to paddle. To keep a rhythm. All I had to do was to do my job.
But I became distracted. Without the encouragement I normally get from visual feedback, I kept thinking we were paddling into the middle of the ocean. Although the GPS confirmed we were on track, my brain told me we were traveling further and further away from our goal. I looked for other signals that would point out our direction. The position of the sun through the clouds, the direction of the fog horn. The position of the waves. But they seemed to be playing tricks. The waves would sometimes be at our side. Sometimes behind us. Sometimes ahead of us.
I didn’t see the point in paddling out to sea away from our destination.
But I was told to trust the GPS, and to continue paddling.
It seemed like we were in a bubble. Paddling without progress. Paddling without feedback.
Without knowing where we were, or how far we were from our destination, it seemed we were paddling to eternity but getting nowhere.
It seemed like we were in a bubble. Paddling without progress. Paddling without feedback. Without a sense of achievement. Without knowing where we were, or how far we were from our destination. It was disconcerting. We were paddling to eternity but getting nowhere.
Working so hard without feedback, without progress, without a sense of achievement became intolerable.
Not having any visual milestones, I had to trust my partner and his GPS. Luckily for me, he was a sailor, who not only understood navigation, but also had done his planning and preparation before we set out. He expertly navigated us back between two crashing waves into the calm channel, and then onto the beach. I knew how lucky I was to have been out with someone so skilled and so prepared. Had he not been so prepared we would have lost our way, and landed up in the middle of the ocean or on the rocks.
What this means to project management
Throughout the trip, I compared my experience of paddling in the fog, to the way many projects are managed in organizations. For example:
- How often do we embark on a new project, going out to sea, unprepared? How often do projects crash and flounder on the rocks as the team goes off course? Although it should be standard practice to develop a detailed project plan - how many leaders take the time to develop a clear vision of the end destination, the specific way points along the route, a clear map, and a clear action plan showing who needs to achieve what by when? How often do project leaders take short cuts on the planning and preparation for a project as they hurry to begin implementing their project?
- In good weather conditions, does the project leader take the time to communicate the map to the team? Does he show them both the end destination, and the visual clues along the shore? How often does he show his team how to get feedback for themselves about how they are progressing along their journey?
- When someone goes off track, does the project leader notice that they haven’t reached a way point? Does he immediately guide them before they go too far off track?
- When a team reaches a way point, does the project leader let them know so as to encourage them to continue their journey?
- Does the leader have the skills to guide and motivate the team if the weather conditions change along the way?
- Does the project leader skillfully guide his team to their end destination - without stress or panic?
If you are working on a project, then both your career and your working life is in the hands of your project manager. Is he/she someone you would trust with your life?