“If I had seen the video, I wouldn’t have come”- matching your plan to your capabilities – Paddling and Projects (4)

One of the most important conditions for a successful project is matching the ambition of your goals with the capabilities of your team. It’s a lesson that a canoe trip really drives home.

map extract

If you look at the map extract above, it shows a section of Algonquin park that we’ve gone canoeing through several times. The red and black lines represent portages – where you carry your canoe, then go back and carry your pack – across the portage. The distances are marked in metres. With four adults, the minimum is everyone walks the route two times – ½ way with the canoe, ½ way back, then all the way with your pack and any other gear. The second person does the reverse – takes his or her pack all the way, then comes back ½ way and picks up the canoe.

So your ‘friend’ for example, could plan a circular route that started in the lake at the bottom centre of the map (which is Opeongo in Algonquin Park), takes a 2180 metre portage, a short paddle, then a 1330 m portage to Red Rock Lake, camp one night on Redrock, then a 3085m portage parallel to the Crow River another campsite. Then a final 1390m portage to complete the circle back to Opeongo. We’d practically be taking the canoes with us on hiking trip!

Did I mention that the canoes are about 25 kg (55 lbs) and the packs upwards of 35? When we need to rent canoes we pay extra to get the ultra-light 16 kg canoes. And of course, the reason you have to portage is that the river can’t be paddled – it has rapids, waterfalls, or un-passable swamps… that means the portage route has hills to climb, and often bogs to walk through too. (It could be worse – The black lines mean the portage is not well maintained, and usually even tougher.)

This route shown is actually tough but doable for me when it is just four strong adults. That first portage is very flat. But when you have young children, you can’t make them carry the canoe, and perhaps not even all of their gear. So now you’re doing each portage route at least three or four times. That’s why I say a group moves at the speed of its slowest person. The project equivalent of course, is the critical path.

One time, early in my canoeing tenure, my friend Graham planned a route so difficult that another friend said as he was trying to climb up and down yet another hill with his pack ‘you know, if I had seen the video, I wouldn’t have come.’

Similarly, on your project, everyone needs to know what the plan is, everyone needs to buy into the plan, and know where the tough spots are, and whether you have a team that can achieve all the milestones. A bit of stretch is great – it encourages the team to work, to learn and to improve. One of the things I like about a canoe trip is the feeling of stretching my skills and pushing myself to do more. But looking at a plan and thinking ‘no way we can do’ that is demotivating. And unlike a canoe trip, where once you are away from the shore you are pretty much committed, on your project, people who decide “if I had seen the video, I wouldn’t have come” actually do have choices.

Published by

Mark Dymond, P.Eng

With over 20 years of consulting experience I've worked with clients in the banking, retail, travel and government sectors. Based in Toronto, Canada, currently I lead the Cloud consulting team for IBM Canada. I've led successful project and program teams in Canada, the US, and Europe of more than 200 people. Thoughts, comments and mistakes are most definitely my own!

5 thoughts on ““If I had seen the video, I wouldn’t have come”- matching your plan to your capabilities – Paddling and Projects (4)”

  1. Once again, love the analogy Mark. Nothing derails a project faster than a collection of folks who exercise the “choices” you mention mid-project.

    Other than interviewing thoroughly, checking references extensively and openly sharing the project plan and getting project member buy-in, have you seen other tools/frameworks that help gauge the capacity of a team to meet a given plan?

    Specifically, I am thinking of situations where a portion of the team is “assigned” to you and/or is “green”. This could mean junior consultants and/or clients implementing a system for the first time. What kind of sanity check can we run to validate the team’s capacity to deliver on something they’ve never done before.


    1. Good question. I am sure there are tools to help identify the gaps. A long time ago a couple friends and I came up with a way to measure individuals & fit on teams (which probably should be its own blog) we called CAP. Which stands for ‘Capability, Attitude, Presence’. Capability is both specific technical skills and speed and ability to learn. Attitude is about EQ and willingness to dive in. Presence has a style component but it also about their ability to make their point in a way that is understood, hold their ground when right and learn from new information and change. By understanding your team strengths and weaknesses on each dimension you get a good sense of where you are. And (this could be another blog) the strengths of your PM (or whatever leader-role is called) and your architect (overall solution visionary) define the success of the project more than any other team skills.

      Liked by 1 person

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