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:
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 norms. Whatever the reason, the poor communication that results from imprecision is mostly harmful.
I once was asked to identify potential schedule issues for a hardware development project. I arrived in March and the product was expected to ship in June. I asked the hardware team when it planned to release to manufacturing and was told June. I asked the software team when it would have the "golden disk" of drivers for duplication and distribution, answer: June. I asked the documentation team when final documentation would be ready for reproduction: June. I asked the manufacturing team when manufacturing would begin: June. June was also when the test team said it would be finished with testing and when the distribution team assured me that the first product would be on the shelves. Everyone believed the project was on track. When I tried to get more precise answers—when I asked the team to point the pine needle at the calendar—it became clear that the project was not on track. The "pine needle" in this case was the question, "When in June?"
The hardware and software development teams cheerfully offered that they expected to have all of their work done by June 30. When I wrote this information on a whiteboard, the testing, documentation, and manufacturing groups all cried foul—their efforts required weeks of work with the final product. The distribution team simply sat in stunned silence. When I prompted team members, they explained that the marketing campaign was planned to reach a fever pitch at the end of May in anticipation of June 1 product availability. Until we put a finer point on the individual schedule targets, people were happily under the illusion that the project was working with a realistic schedule.
Out of the Swamp
On that dark and humbling night in a Georgia swamp, I didn't know that I was learning communication lessons that would be worth sharing thirty years later. I wish I could recall the name of the sergeant who gave me those nuggets of wisdom—I would like to let him know that he helped save my clients a lot of money and grief.
Some parts of software project management are a lot like navigating through a swamp at night: It's hard to know exactly where you are, there are risks lurking below the surface that can reach up and bite you, and, when faced with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory, it is tempting to bluff, push on, and hope for the best. Software projects need honesty, clarity, and project leaders who know how to demonstrate these behaviors and elicit them from the team.