Project Management for Hillwalkers – Part 1

Part 1: Why even bother ?

No, I haven’t finally lost it and become unable to distinguish between work and play.  And yes, whilst project management is my “day job”, I do seriously believe it has something to offer the hillwalker; especially one like me for whom a trip to the hills is too infrequent because of where I live, and on which consequently there’s a lot of pressure for it to be successful.

So, I’m starting a short series of posts on why and how key principles, and practices, of project management have something to offer the walker too, and in this first part, I’ll explore why, and introduce the key arguments.

So first of all, why am I doing this ?  The answer to this lies in my situation.

I live and work in the south east and have been a project manager in the financial services industry (is that booing and hissing I can hear ?) for many years.  It was the stress of the job and the need to get away that kick started my walking again after a long post-University dormant patch.  And it is the ability to get away to the Lakes or Snowdonia a few times each year that gives me the strength to get through it.  Indeed, I’ve even recently arranged my work situation to fit my walking, and gone freelance.

But the fact remains, that living where I do, means I can’t really go as often as I’d like.  Which in turn means that I need each trip to be a success, considering the time and cost invested.  So I plan each trip to pack in as much high quality walking as I can, and because I don’t want it to be a waste of time and money, I try to prevent things going wrong, by applying the lessons from past trips, having contingency plans and arranging the trip so that if something does go awry, I can recover the rest of the trip.

Of course, the irony is that by having more control over how much I work, the pressure on my walking trips to be perfect should reduce and maybe I’ll even do a trip where I make it up as I go along.  But until then, I’m going to plan them.

When I took some time off this year, I spent some time refreshing my professional skills, as well as spending time in the hills, and I planned my hillwalking trips more thoroughly than ever before, really just by applying these basic concepts.  And they were arguably more successful than ever before.  This was no coincidence.

The image projected by The Apprentice of the role of the project manager is of some hapless individual that gets stitched up in the role or who has an ego that needs to be exercised.  And failure means being fired.

The image here is very much of a black and white, success v abject failure scenario, but in reality most projects aren’t quite that clear-cut.

Many people, some project managers included, think that managing a project somehow guarantees success, and simply following a defined process achieves the same.  Well that’s not the case.  There is only one reason for the role of a project manager, and that’s because projects are, by their nature, different to normality.  This difference means that no one can be completely sure how things will go, or even everything that needs to be done.  A project is an exercise in educated guesswork, based on an idealised vision of an, as yet, non-existent outcome.  Using project management techniques is simply an attempt to bring as much control to the project as possible and to reduce the risk of it going pear-shaped.  Nothing else.  It doesn’t guarantee success just as it doesn’t completely prevent failure.  But what it does do is give you a chance and some tools to help keep you in with a chance.

It seems to me that this has a number of parallels with hill walking.  Because of uncertainties around things like the weather, getting lost, getting injured, changing your mind about the route and gear failing on you, you can never be 100% certain of success.  But you can put yourself in the position of being able to cope.

A lot can go wrong on a walk, and a bit of thinking ahead can help prevent some of these, make the impact of some less bothersome, and at least prepare you for the others.  That’s really all I’m talking about here, not some elaborate methodology.

So, in the posts to come, I’m going to use the principles of project management applied to planning a walking trip.  Contrived – hopefully, you won’t think so when I’ve finished, especially as what I’m going to describe is what I actually do.  And all I’m really doing here is presenting the thought process that many people go through anyway, but just in a slightly different light.  Always remember here, that the purpose is to maximise the time in the hills, not the time spent managing it.

Some of the things I’ll cover are:

  • Some approaches to planning the trip.
  • Thinking about what could go wrong.
  • Reacting when things actually go wrong.
  • Applying the lessons from past projects (trips).

In the next installment, I’m going to talk about how I go about planning my precious trips, be they a long distance path or some made-up wander around the Lake District.  I’ll use my own previous trips to illustrate the points and hopefully, show why these ideas actually work.

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