As a new Army Ranger, Payson acquired many hard-earned lessons. But dodging snakes and alligators while navigating a Georgia swamp one moonless night, he learned two lessons in particular that can help project managers navigate their software projects.
Fat, Gloved Fingers
It was my first training patrol since joining the 1st Ranger Battalion in Georgia. I was nervous. I was leading a movement through the swamp, avoiding deep water and the thickest brush while keeping my team together. With few visible landmarks and no tools other than a map and compass, it was easy to become "disoriented" (according to legend, Rangers are never "lost"—only "temporarily disoriented"). Fearing I might be disoriented, I kept the team moving on the right heading and hoped for the best.
A senior sergeant who had been quietly observing took me aside during a break, pulled out a map and a red filter flashlight, and whispered, "Ranger Hall, where are we right now?"
A lump formed in my throat. In the flashlight’s muted red glow, the detailed military map showed a vast expanse of swamp with few significant terrain features. Knowing where we had started two hours before and factoring in our approximate pace and heading, I swallowed hard and pointed to where I hoped we were. "Right about here," I answered, aiming for a tone between casual and decisive. As I pointed, the tip of my gloved finger covered an area the size of a nickel on the map—which translated into a half-mile diameter circle on the ground.
Handing me a needle from a nearby Georgia pine, the grizzled sergeant said calmly, "Ranger, I asked you where we are. I want to know xactly where we are."
Feeling like a fraud, I admitted that I wasn't sure where we were and explained how I had roughly estimated our location.
The sergeant leaned in close and growled, "Two things I don't ever want to have to tell you again: If you aren't sure where you are, say so, and use a pine needle and expect your troops to do the same—it helps identify people who are confused or not on the same page."
Using the pine needle, he pointed to where we were on the map—I had missed by more than a mile. He then pointed out how subtle changes in nearby vegetation corresponded to very slight elevation changes on the map. Before we resumed the patrol, he gave me other tips to improve my swamp navigation skills, but the two communication lessons he had growled that night still serve me.
If You Aren't Sure Where You Are, Say So
Our culture values decisive behavior, so pride sometimes motivates us to appear decisive even when we don't feel that way. At a minimum, this results in misleading our teams and our sponsors. At its worst, this can lead to disaster. If you have questions or doubts, it is ultimately in everyone's best interest to share your uncertainty—even if this means admitting you aren't perfect.
Owning uncertainty is important for several reasons:
- It demonstrates that you are wise enough to admit your assumptions might be wrong.
- It shows you are open to other perspectives and invites discussion.
- It elicits information from people who otherwise might not volunteer it.
- It models the behavior you should expect from others on your team. If I worked for you and had doubts about the project's status, would you rather I smoothed over my uncertainty with false confidence or told you the truth?
Use a Pine Needle
People are often imprecise about schedule information. Sometimes folks give vague answers when they don't want to admit they are not sure. Sometimes people are imprecise to build in "wiggle room" to defend against later change. I believe that most imprecision is due either to sloppy thinking or to conformance to local cultural
|Pine Needles and Better Communication||137.98 KB|