The Swamp Donkey Adventure Race is a grueling nine-hour race over land and water that tests your endurance, your ability to think under stress and fatigue, and your ability to navigate. It takes place in the Canadian Shield in the southeastern edge of Manitoba, and includes biking, paddling, and orienteering.

I entered the Swamp Donkey race for the first time this year, with two other teammates who had never raced before. We finished the race, but as you might imagine with a team of novice competitors, we learned a lot of lessons along the way. What struck me as I reflected after the race were the similarities between navigating this race and navigating large, complex IT projects. In particular, it was interesting to see the many similarities between the way people respond to being lost in the woods and how they respond to being on a “lost” project.

Characteristics of Being Lost

In the body of knowledge around wilderness search and rescue, there are patterns of behaviour that are observed in people who are lost. It starts with confusion, where an individual loses the reference points that connect the physical world around them to their map. This disconnect with reality is known as spatial disorientation, where an individual begins to believe in a mental model of where they are going, more than the reality right in front of them. In the book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales describes it like this: “Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like ‘well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘that boulder could have moved,’ a red light should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there.”

After confusion sets in, fear begins to develop. Fear of isolation, fear of predators, fear of the ever increasing loss of control. As this fear develops, the urge to push forward intensifies, which often takes the individual further off course as they hurry to find their way.

Similarities With “Lost” Projects

Last fall, I was asked to help rescue a multi-million dollar application development project. The project was being delivered by two multi-national consulting companies with a large off-shore delivery team in India. The teams showed open hostility toward each other, the work streams had become grid-locked, and the client and consulting companies were on the edge of severing their contract.

As I worked with the teams involved, it was apparent that they had begun to lose touch with reality. They had a difficult time developing an integrated plan that took into account the dependencies across the different delivery teams. Instead of taking the time to figure out a realistic project schedule, the project manager picked dates that would show them meeting their overall target delivery dates. At the individual team level, there was a fractured view of what needed to be done. Each team had a different set of priorities and their work schedules were based on assumptions of when dependent pieces would be delivered, rather than the actual targets set by these teams. In addition, the project incentives rewarded work done on an individual team level, even if it was completed at the expense of other teams or the overall project objective. In the same way that a hiker lost in the woods can suffer from spatial disorientation, the project teams were trying to make reality conform to their expectations, rather than seeing and acknowledging what was really happening.

In this state of confusion, each project team did not want to be seen as the cause of the challenges. Like the hiker who fears being alone when they get lost, the teams had a fear of being isolated or singled-out. As I began to piece together the reality of the situation, I could see the defensive postures beginning to emerge.

Characteristics of Survivors

In physical search and rescue scenarios, the people who survive have a different mindset. They recognize that when confusion sets in, it is not the time to forge ahead with a sense of urgency. Instead, they use the STOP method which is promoted by search and rescue organizations as a way to get your bearings: Sit, Think, Observe, Plan.

The chances of survival in a physical search and rescue scenario also increase when there is leadership among the lost group. Leadership provides a sense of purpose and spurs lost individuals to common action.

Bringing the Lost Project Back on Track

As Peter Drucker put it: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” In the project I was helping with, the primary vendor was not taking responsibility for the project outcomes and the project teams had lost touch with reality.

The project was brought back on track by:

  • Shifting the focus back to the project objectives.
  • Applying a proven method for organizational change management to guide the necessary changes in team behaviours.
  • Establishing ownership and accountability of the outcomes – not just the individual tasks.
  • Appointing a strong facilitator to lead the collaborative, cross-team solution-finding sessions:
    • Breaking down organizational boundaries by creating SWAT teams around specific problems.
    • Giving permission to the teams to find creative solutions.
    • Developing energy, engagement and excitement in small, shared successes.
  • Communicating clear priorities from the project executives down to all the project teams.
  • Creating a one-page project map (that all project teams bought into) that showed the flow of work between teams and the relevant hand-off dates.

By studying and understanding the psychology of people who are lost, we can improve our abilities to recognize projects that are in trouble and increase our success in recovering projects that have lost their way.