What Combat Tracking Taught Me About Project Management

Let me be clear from the start. I don’t have any military service and don’t claim any expertise in combat tracking (aka tactical or mantracking).  Tracking skills are developed over years of practice and use just as other skills are honed.

The author, front row, center

My exposure to tracking occurred while I was a member of a civilian Search & Rescue (SAR) groups in the northeast US.  A diverse group of volunteers from carpenters to corporate attorneys, we were trained in map-reading, first-aid skills, the Incident Command System (ICS), and various search methods. When someone went into the woods and didn’t come out, we would be activated to go find them.

I jumped at the opportunity to train with one of the most respected combat trackers in the world and classmates from the military and law enforcement.  My thinking was that if I could learn tracking under difficult conditions then I would be a better civilian SAR member.

After a couple days in the woods getting dirty and soaked while tracking and being tracked by professionals, what did I learn by this experience that can possibly apply to Project Management?

First, I realized that both Project Management and tracking are defined by several similar, key features:

  • A temporary situation that falls outside of normal operations
  • A clear and singular goal
  • Utilization of a process that includes knowledge, skills, tools and techniques
  • A set of boundary conditions (e.g. duration, budget, market or area)

I also saw combat tracking as a good analogy for what might be called extreme project management. Consider several comparisons in the following table.

Project Management SAR Tracking Combat Tracking
Initiated by an executive mandate to complete a deliverable to a welcoming market (e.g. new product or service) Requested by a public authority to find a missing person(s) who likely wants to be found Ordered by a senior officer to find a combatant(s) who do not want to be found, and who may attempt to harm the tracking team; very dynamic due to determined resistance by the combatants being sought
Conducted by a core team with a designated leader and representatives from other departments with specialized focus (e.g. engineering, operations, marketing) Utilizes small teams with a designated team leader and members who have specific strengths but also cross-trained in common skills (e.g. navigation, first-aid) Executed by small teams with a designated leader and specialists but trained to a high level so each member could assume any role as may be required
Driven by step-wise process (e.g. phase-control, PRINCE2) that assumes a linear path from project beginning to end Incorporates a step-by-step process that assumes the lost person is moving at a fixed rate along a forward path Employs basic techniques but anticipating any diversions or threats and ready to respond aggressively as required
Acts in close coordination with senior managers and executives, using meetings and reports issued to advise of progress and to seek guidance and approval on next steps that require variance in the project plan Acts in close coordination with an incident command post via radio communication to obtain guidance and approval on next steps the team may need to take Prepared to act with autonomy especially when not able to seek guidance or approval, such as when radio communications are not available

Take Aways

So what may the observations above point to that a project manager can do differently to drive progress and improve results?  I propose the following simple suggestions:

  1. Adopt the mindset of a combat tracker. Consider your objective to be a living and cunning opponent who isn’t passively awaiting you to arrive but rather an adversary who is taking steps to actively deprive you of success. It’s fine to acknowledge what’s going right, but keep the focus on what could go wrong – even if all the “right” things are being done.
  2. Ensure that all team members are crossed-trained. Everyone has their personal strengths and expertise, but the more rounded are the individual team members the stronger is the entire team. Encourage engineers to get basic sales training and to attend sales visits so they can experience the customer perspective first-hand. Seek a basic cGMP course for sales personnel so they understand requirements for claims support. Ideally, every team member should be ready to assume the role of team leader at least temporarily.
  3. Lead but seek the diverse view from the team.  Employ consent decision making to obtain the the best overall view of the project during its course and to achieve forward motion without absolute agreement. Help all team members accomplish their assigned tasks through discussion to ensure that no individual’s tasks are creating problems for other individuals (both within the project team or throughout the larger organization).
  4. Respect process but don’t let dogma hold you back. The security of a methodical, stepwise approach may be comforting and effective under some situations, but the combat tracker is constantly contemplating the worst case and not afraid to make a reasoned decision that may fall outside of normal process.  Remember that  “best practices” don’t assure success and so the team must remain alert, flexible and ready to take the initiative  when opportunity presents itself.

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