PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Project Lessons Learned from America's Best Idea

Project Lessons Learned from America's Best Idea

by Kent McDonald

I'm writing this in the Denver Airport as my wife and I are returning from our trip to Big Bend National Park. While we were on this trip, I got a reminder that it was my turn for an article, and it occurred to me as we were on one of our many hikes, that the story of our trip held some great project management lessons. I thought I would share some of those main lessons here.

Know Why You Are Doing the Project

"Why Big Bend National Park in January?" you may or may not be asking. This was an opportunity to mix a couple of our interests. My wife enjoys running long distance races, from 5K to the (very) occasional marathon, and has set a goal to run a race in every month of the year. I have a goal to visit every National Park in the United States. This past Sunday the Big Bend Ultra race took over Big Bend National Park with a 10K, 25K, and 50K. When my wife saw an article about the race in Runner's World Magazine last April, we immediately saw the opportunity to celebrate her upcoming significant birthday (Tuesday the 21st), give her a chance for her run a race in January (her first trail race) and to visit National Park number 17 out of 58. (Now 59. More on that later.)

Allow me for a minute to extend the trip as project metaphor to extreme lengths and put this particular trip in overall perspective. You could think of the effort needed to satisfy both of those goals as a separate Program. The Run a Race in Every Month program is the smaller of the two, with a clearly defined time frame (one year), and fairly manageable constraint -- at least one race a month, with no limit on where the race is, so we don't have to travel to terribly far to accomplish this goal (although it is a bit difficult to find races in Iowa in January). The Every National Park in the United States program is a bit larger. Officially, there are 59 National Parks including 8 in Alaska, at least 2 of which are above the Arctic Circle, one in American Samoa and one in the Virgin Islands, not to mention all of the parks dotted across the Western United States. We're very quickly working our way through the ones that are within driving distance, so are soon to run into a constraint driven by travel budget and available time for the trips. Due to the size of this effort we look for ways to incorporate multiple parks, or other interests into the trips we take.

So as we began to plan this particular trip, which you could consider a project to satisfy parts of two Programs -- you have to take those opportunities whenever they came up -- we knew we had to structure the plans so that my wife could run the race in a time she could be proud of, and we had to make the most of our visit to Big Bend National Park. In other words we needed to know what success looks like.

Know How You Will Measure Success

For this particular trip, we needed to define success based on making progress on the two programs I mentioned above. These success criteria translate into two key objectives we had on this trip were:

  1. My wife finishes the 10K race and achieves a satisfactory time.
  2. I successfully visit my 17th National Park.

We of course wanted to have an enjoyable time as well, but I didn't want to stretch the analogy beyond ridiculousness (it may be too late for that).

When using objectives to guide a project, it's always extremely helpful to define the objectives clearly so that there is no question whether the objectives were actually met. For that purpose, here's a little more on how we defined each of the objectives. The first part of the race objective is fairly straightforward. My wife wanted to finish the race (usually this means she runs across the finish line before they course is closed.) The satisfactory time aspect of the objective is a little sketchy. In my wife's case "satisfactory time" depends on the race and how she is doing leading up to it. In this case, she was targeting to finish the race in less than 55 minutes. As it turns out, she finished in just under 53 minutes and was two days away from winning the Master's Women's class, so all in all a good race.

The criteria for a successful visit of a national park is not measured by a specific measurement, but is a yes or no based on a couple of rules, which have evolved over the course of the program:

  • I have to physically be in the National Park.
  • Proof of a visit is via the official stamp in my National Parks Passport which shows the date of my visit. (This makes the Passport book a very precious commodity). This is also an indication that I was actually in the Park Visitor Center.
  • View at least one of the main sites in the National Park and go on at least one hike. (This is to avoid the Griswold maneuver (video) from National Lampoon's Vacation.)

The trickiest part of this is probably remembering to bring along the Passport book, and then remembering to get it stamped. It's now become standard operating procedure for us to stop at the first open Visitor's Center we come to inside the park, get the passport book stamped, and ask the Park Rangers for suggestions on what their favorite parts of the park is what we should "not miss." The requirement of the stamp in the National Park Passport is open for interpretation, since the Every National Park in the United States program officially was declared after I had visited four of the National Parks. I count them in the overall total, but suspect I will make it back to them before the program finishes.

On this particular trip we got the passport stamp taken care of early, and since we had a solid three days in the park, we were able to take in the sites, and go on several good hikes, including a delightful 11.6 mile hike on the day we were due to leave the park that took us up 2,000 feet to a wonderful overlook of the entire park called the South Rim Trail.

Understand Your Overall Scope

When I first made my goal to visit all of the National Parks, I quickly found I had to be very specific about what that really meant. The National Park Service currently manages 392 locations. If I tried to visit each one of those, I would probably not be able to do anything else. Instead, I set the target at visiting the actual National Parks, not to be confused with National Monuments, National Preserves, National Reserves and the like. The National Park Service is even a little vague on the difference, but the easiest way to tell if something fits is the official name of the area. To keep it very clear, I made an explicit list of sites that need to be visited, as well as the ones to which I have already been. Explicitly listing what is included in scope clears up any confusion and provides a source to point back to. This is especially important when talking to stakeholders that may have only a passing understanding of what you are trying to accomplish. In my case, that's my father-in-law, who constantly asks if we've been to a particular park in our quest, and is usually referring to a National Battlefield Park or National Historic Park. Having a specific list provides a nice reference point for those clarifying discussions.

Having the clear statement of scope also is helpful when scope changes. In my case, I have the United States Congress to thank. On January 10, 2013 the president signed legislation that converted Pinnacles National Monument into Pinnacles National Park, the United States' 59th National Park. My dad had asked me a year or so ago what would happen if more national parks were added while this program was underway, and I indicated that I would add them to the list. I probably would not have visited Pinnacles had it stayed a National Monument, but now that it has reached National Park status it's on the list. If you work on projects in regulated industries, no doubt you can relate to my situation.

Change Plans When the Opportunity Exists to Better Meet Objective

Probably the biggest project management lesson we learned on this trip was to not feel beholden to rigid plans. When we had originally laid out our travel plans, we had heard that Big Bend National Park was 250 miles from the nearest airport. So we planned to fly into Midland/Odessa, stay there overnight and then drive down to Big Bend the next day. We did the same thing on the way back, driving back to Midland Odessa the day before we were scheduled to fly out. We did this primarily to account for possible flight delays, of which I seem prone to recently. However when our flights went disconcertingly smooth, we found ourselves driving around Midland at 1:00 PM wondering what we were going to do to occupy our time. We quickly decided it would be worth a couple of phone calls to see if we could start our time in Big Bend much sooner. As luck would have it, the lodge in which we were staying in Big Bend had open rooms, and we were able to cancel our reservations in Midland, thus giving us almost an extra day to experience the sights and trails in Big Bend. Had we not made that switch, we probably would not have been able to do as much hiking and see as much of the park as we ended up doing.

We changed our plans coming back as well. Deciding the schedule change fees were worth it to get back home at noon instead of 6 pm or later and start getting adjusted back into the flow of things at home. This put us in a position where we are able to be much more productive doing laundry and getting the house back in shape rather than cooling our heels in an airport all day.

As we continue to strive toward completion of our two Programs, we'll continue to take other trips that capitalize on these lessons learned and others. We set an initial plan to make the airfare and hotel reservations in advance when we need to, but also set up situations where we can make changes as the situation warrants to improve the enjoyment of our trip or increase the actual time focused on satisfying the objectives of that particular trip. Our next "project" is a trip to Las Vegas over Spring Break where we're adding another interest into the mix. We're going to catch a college conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, my wife has found a race to run, and we are going to visit Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Great Article, mixing fun trip with project-management. I really like the last part - Chaging Plans. Thanks for sharing. (Greetings from India).

thanks - this made me think on how to formalize two of my goals for the year: volunteering at church once a month and the project of handling email daily. Enjoy the comgined park/run program.

Your ariticle brought back memories of my trip to Big Bend right after graduating from college, when project risk management was not on my mind. I came close to being bitten by a rattlesnake right at the top of the tallest peak there, and got very sick after swimming across the Rio Grande to Mexico and back (just to say I had set foot on Mexican soil). But there is nothing like experience and logging in Lessons Learned - except for having great memories!

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