Be the Compass for Your Team

Growing up (in Sweden), we had team-based orienteering on the gym class schedule (note: this was way before Google Maps). This cumbersome activity was a frequent item on the agenda during every out-door season (which by the way was calendar based rather than weather based – yeah, gym class was hard). We learned how to read maps and use both nature and a compass to get a sense of direction. We ran in “unknown terrain” of the woods (i.e. a small forest next to the school campus). Every year, in the same forest. I can’t count how many bruises, cuts, and mud-soaked, smelly gym clothes I had to endure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Senior years we had learned enough about the forest to know ahead of time approximately where the controls were placed. And of course this enabled us to optimize our strategy. Our teams divided and conquered by sending out scouts to each control separately, and then copying the stamp pattern across all our stamp cards. I’m still not sure it was cheating, as we had advanced our skills. I.e. we had learned the basics the first years, evolved to develop a distributed system over the following years, and optimized for quickest time to results to achieve the goal. Additionally we gained the bonus of hanging out out-of-sight from the goal line and discussing “much more important things” (like boys, fashion, or random emergencies in teenage lives – i.e. creating social networks) than running around in a forest.

Fast forward 10s of years. I’ve realized only a few people (these days) here in the Valley can actually read a (real) map, use a compass, and survive 72 hours in the woods (without phone or without asking “the internet”). I kind of feel proud of my high-school acquired survival skills, in comparison. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of what those gym classes taught me:

  • Don’t lose hope or sense of direction, just because you’ve gotten a bit lost from your original, known path
  • Don’t fret about tiny falls or bumps on the way, instead keep on moving towards the target
  • Be attentive, listen, and look for signs to get hints about what would be a misleading shortcut vs. the best way forward. It’s not always what seems to be the easiest path that leads you to your goal.
  • Stop frequently and course direct along the way.
  • Account for misinformation from your team, but don’t put blame – you’ll be the one making the mistake next time.
  • Struggle through rough patches – as a team!
  • Have clear milestones to enable measuring achievement along the way – to see progress, but also keep team spirit up
  • The minute you realize you are off track, backtrack to the most recent known place and re-plan from there – re-assess information you acquired that took you on the wrong path!
  • Plan a path, and create optional paths A, B, and C, in case of the unknown.
  • Be open to creatively come up with plan D, in case you need to, along the way.
  • Pick people on your team with different skills, to assure success.
  • Try to be the compass for your team when the rest of the team feels lost.
  • Don’t be scared of unknown terrain – with the right tools and a team that communicates, you’ll get through.

Perhaps not all of this wisdom is purely derived from orienteering, but the metaphor helps inspire me at times and to get some perspective on project planning and execution, team management, and utilization of skills to reach a goal.

On a side note, I probably owe my old high-school gym-teacher a proper thank you for the tedious effort of motivating 20-or-so grumpy and freezing teenagers to run in a wet forest, for no obvious immediate reward. In the hindsight I do appreciate some of the endurance practiced and the inspiration to ponder decades later.