Don’t watch the far end of the lake, you see your progress by what you pass (Paddling and Projects)

Whenever I show pictures from a canoe trip, I invariably get the question “you were there?” with the tone implying a sense of envy. The lakes and rivers are so beautiful. Whether it is some cascade we are portaging around, the mist in the morning or a beautiful sunset, we see spectacular sites. Killarney, with its white rock and deep blue water, it particularly gorgeous in the fall when the colours are changing. We’ve been there when the colours deepen every day. It is glorious.

But these places are all off the beaten path.  It is hard work to paddle and portage to get to see this.  My back aches, my arms are tired. Sometimes I can get pretty grumpy.  But for me its more than worth it.

In the same way, the big achievements in IT projects or in consulting… an NPS of 10 on a difficult project, an external or internal recognition award, IDEA, completing a complex project on-time on budget for a client – these are hard work.  We all want to see the press release or be in the management meeting where a senior executive says “we couldn’t have done it without you.’  but that takes hard work each and every day.

An old friend and colleague of mine, Leslie Kulokas, who retired from IBM always said, “if it was easy, they would have monkeys doing it”.  Clients hire us for their projects because it is difficult.  When you do a great job in a tough situation, sometimes knowing that they couldn’t get it done without you is the only reward.  But just like in the canoe, the payoff is worth it.

One of the reasons a canoe trip is tough is that a canoe doesn’t really move very fast.  Certainly not compared to a motor boat or a car.  When you start out across a large lake or down a long river, it can look like you will never get across to the other side. Conversely, it is easy to look only at your hand on the paddle and your own contribution. Again it can feel insufficient to the task.

  • If you keep staring at the end of the lake, it feels like nothing is changing.
  • But if you look to the sides, you will see the scenery slide by pretty quickly.
  • The view changes constantly if you are close to shore.

And then when you look back at the long view a few minutes later, it seems like you are much closer.

It’s the same in a long project.  If you are constantly looking at the final destination, it might seem like you aren’t making progress. And it is sometimes hard to see how your individual contribution builds to the final goal. But if you have frequent milestones – and you know that those milestones actually lead where you are going – then you can measure your progress more accurately and have a real sense of progress. To me this is one of the biggest benefits of Agile projects – frequent milestones, frequent celebration of success, and an opportunity to both re-energize and re-assess your direction.

Whether it is the end of a portage, or out in the middle of the lake, we take lots of breaks during the day to re-energize. We plan our routes to so that there is time to set up camp, make dinner, clean up and still have time to relax before it gets too dark.

It’s easy to run out of steam when you are pushing hard and it is important to keep hydrated and your sugar levels up.

Similarly, on projects we need to take care of our people.  There is an ebb and flow to every project, and we need to make sure our team is getting the equivalent of a red licorice or a Werther now and then.  Whether it is disconnecting via training, vacation, or a mini break with a team pot-luck or evening event…. we need to make sure the answer isn’t always ‘more right now.’


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!

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