Everything I know about project management I learned at Philmont

Elise Fleischaker Neurensic Blog


Over the summer I was lucky enough to visit BSA’s Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico for the second time. Philmont is a high adventure camp for the Boy Scouts (& young women in Venturing Crews) in the beautiful mountains of New Mexico. Participants usually go on a 12 day trek, carrying everything they need on their backs and restocking a couple of times on the way. Boy Scouts of America teaches the Patrol Method which is a way of having a team work together. Even though I am an experienced scouter, I found there was much to learn at Philmont and many ways these lessons could be applied to my agile project management environment.

Philmont is at an elevation that coming from Chicago I am not used to. Base camp is at 6000 feet and we hiked to a total altitude of 11,700 feet (last time we climbed Baldy at 12,443 feet). I am not used to altitude and it was hard going for me. Philmont has visitors from all over the USA so I am not the only low-altitude person to arrive there. They are a very experienced organization and know how to plan for it to keep everyone safe. The first few days were a steady walk up the valley in which I felt every uphill step but by the end of which I was ready for the hillier challenges coming up.

Project Management Lesson One: know your team and support them with planning. Stretch them but don’t overwhelm them. Don’t be afraid to have goals that require hard work, but don’t bite off way more than you can chew. Rome wasn’t built in a day, Everest wasn’t climbed in an hour and your project won’t be completed in 2 weeks.

A patrol at Philmont is between 8 and 12 people with a mixture between adults and scouts. The patrol is led by the scouts and the adults are there to provide backup and support and to work, but in general not lead. In this environment people have different skills but everyone needs to be working. It becomes clear when someone is not pulling their weight just as it becomes clear who  needs additional help and who can provide that. In my first trip, one member complained of stomach pains and for the morning his load was split up among the rest of the team. Not only was it clear who needed some support through a challenge but it was clear that one or two scouts were capable and willing to take on most of this additional load. Likewise, many adults feel uncomfortable with the patrol being led by less experienced people, but with the right support these leaders flourish. Some mistakes are made but in most cases the leaders learn and the team finishes the trek like a well oiled machine.

Project Management Lesson Two: know your team and use them appropriately. Allow people to flourish. Support them but extend them, giving them them opportunity to learn new skills and to shine. You may get a pleasant surprise.

Philmont is physically challenging. It is also physically stunning in its beauty and the way it has been managed. It has wildly varying terrain, from hot plains to forest covered slopes, rushing rivers and tall mountains. Sometimes it rains when you expect, sometimes it rains when you don’t expect. The views are spectacular when you get to them. The view from Mt. Phillip was truly extraordinary, the bandannas tied to the marker at the top fluttering in the breeze like a scouting equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags, the backdrop of Mt Baldy adding a sweet note of nostalgia for me and my son. This is one of the special places in the world and I am privileged to have been there, and I am proud of the miles I walked on both these trips (adding up to 140 miles) and altitude I climbed (a total well over 15,000 feet up and back down again).

Project Management Lesson Three: the work is hard but  the rewards are stunning. Be proud of your project. Realize it is hard work but enjoy the triumphs along with the challenges. Encourage your whole team to appreciate the view. Be proud of your achievements and most of all, seize the opportunity to rise to those challenges.

Hike on!