Monday, February 7, 2011

An Extreme(ish) Company Planning Conference

Twice a year the management of my company congregates at an off-site location for a planning conference. These things are legendary for a few reasons. First, no one except the President and his right-hand man have any idea what’s happening in advance. The general playbook is for management to get an equipment list and a heading a few days or weeks before the conference, and then an actual address or waypoint the morning of.

Once you arrive, you still have pretty much no idea what’s happening until it happens. The President disseminates unclear, vague, and inaccurate information throughout the days leading up to, and including the conference itself. This is all in good fun and as I recently experienced personally, culminates in a good time. The shenanigans serve as good breaks between the serious business that is actually conducted the majority of the conference.

I was invited to participate in part of this Winter’s planning conference, a rare honor extended to seven others. It is common to have non-management employees such as myself crash these events at the President’s request and I was happy to oblige.

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I arrived at a lodge Friday morning after a 2.5 hour drive to the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. This place wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, but it was pretty remote with narrow, winding, hills and no cell service. I met up with my group of crashers and landed in the conference room with approximately 20 managers. We observed an all-business presentation that was wrapping up before arriving at our primary agenda item “Safety on the Mountain; Battle Briefing”, presented by the President.

I should mention what the equipment list looked like, which gave the only other hint as to the day’s activities:

Long sleeve base layer top, Lightweight polar fleece mid layer top, Windproof outer layer top, Windproof shelled insulator pants, Polyester underwear, Wool hiking socks, Well broken-in hiking shoes, Windproof fleece gloves, Hat with earmuffs

And a list of optional gear which “will increase your ability to survive the terrain and unknown weather conditions”:

LED headlamp or flashlight, or both, Unbreakable water container, water bottles, Gatorade, etc., Snowshoes (editor’s note: !), Ski poles, Daypack, Compass

At first blush this was an intimidating list, and at second blush very expensive. After thinking about it though, I realized that hiking around the mountains is probably a lot like something I’ve actually done: skiing. So instead of buying $1500 worth of gear, I decided to just dress appropriately for skiing. The only things I bought were a $5 Under Armor-like base layer at target and some reimbursable snowshoes.

Back to the battle briefing. The President laid out the rules for an afternoon game of capture the flag. This was modified for the environment and took place in about six square miles of hilly, dense forest crisscrossed with dozens of trails:

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I marked my team’s path with question marks because I was never really sure where we were. Our initial quest was uneventful; we didn’t make contact with another human for nearly two hours.

I’ll spare you the details and give you just the gist of the adventure. We hiked for about four hours playing the game. Some of us were captured in “POW camps” while others enjoyed well-supplied base camps:

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We only got off track a couple of times and easily corrected by following our footprints backwards until we found the trail again. It only occurred to me just now that our footprints through the snow added a great deal of safety to an otherwise dangerous climate.

I learned a few survival lessons:

  • You can’t rely on cell phones—they didn’t work there
  • The latest Google Maps supports cached maps, which did work on my phone really well even without service (since I downloaded them in advance—planning FTW), though I relied on my paper map for all important navigation
  • Forming consensus among a random group of people is easy—most people like to follow. Forming consensus at a leadership conference is hard because most people like to lead
    • Instead of saying things like “what do you think of two people hiking down this path?” I found myself getting more assertive than usual to move along the decision making process with language like this, “X and I will hike down this path and then this one unless there’s any objection. No? Let’s go.”
  • Hiking in temperatures in the 20s is easy. Standing still becomes very cold very fast.
  • Snow shoes really work, even if it doesn’t look like it
  • Two-way radios don’t work worth a damn outside of line-of-sight. This technology hasn’t improved much since I had a pair 15 years ago.
  • Don’t delay when the President offers you a ride or you’ll have a lot of walking in your future (just ask @gbtg)

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I was struck by the beauty of the scenery. It was a neat place with…a lot of trees. And snow. When the kids are a bit older, I can definitely see a trip out here as a nice way to unplug.

[Note regarding the pictures: I took these with my phone and my pocket Canon point-and-shoot, usually while moving. It was very difficult to capture the scale of what I was looking at—how remote I was, the density and darkness of the forest, and the cold. I wider lens might have helped, as would more people in the shots for perspective.]