Was it a mission doomed to fail? We’ll never know, but we came close to launching a team and losing them in a trackless wilderness. Here’s what happened, and how to keep your own team from getting lost in the jungle.
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Lost in the Jungle
The call came in late one Saturday afternoon. An Air Force F-16 jet had gone down in the jungle. They might need us to help rescue the pilot.
I was serving in an Army unit in Panama, in the days before GPS was commonly available. Back then we kept a small team of Soldiers on a very short alert string, the kind where they had just minutes to respond. The men slept with their boots on and equipment already packed. They were well-trained and prepared to respond to any variety of possible missions. This was one of them.
“We’re ready,” I told the man on the phone. “Tell us everything you know about the crash site.”
Our contact said the plane went down in a remote and dangerous part of the Panamanian jungle known as the Darién. Located just north of the Colombian border, it’s a trackless tangle of mangrove swamps, impossibly steep hills, meandering streams and thick forest. Movement requires a machete and is measured in feet, not miles. If the venomous animals or disease-carrying insects don’t get you, the narco-traffickers or paramilitary guerrillas might. It was a dangerous and practically impenetrable place. Even the Pan-American Highway stops at the Darién.
My contact at headquarters relayed to us some likely coordinates of the crash site so we could start planning. I alerted the team, and sent our intelligence officer to get the relevant map. Soon he was back: “We don’t have that map.” Headquarters said they would send a courier over with a copy.
Meanwhile our minds spun into action – where there any roads nearby? If not, we’d be looking for likely helicopter landing zones to get the rescue team in. What about water obstacles that we would need a way to cross, or could use as a way to get close? How about trails we could use to get to the crash site more quickly once on the ground?
Finally, the map arrived. We thought it would provide answers to these questions, but that’s not how it worked out.
Mapping it Out
In the Army, we spent a lot of time with maps – they were a treasure-trove of useful information. Rivers can be obstacles or avenues of approach. Higher ground dominates lower; natural choke points confer tactical advantage to whoever controls them. Roads and trails facilitate movement and support; populated areas present challenges of their own. Knowledge of the ground, and where you are on it, is crucial to maneuver successfully through it.
The maps we worked with were overlayed with grid lines spaced one kilometer apart. With some training, you could identify your location precisely, plan routes to move along, and coordinate the movement of hundreds of people and machines.
We thanked the courier and ran upstairs with the cardboard tube containing the map. Our planning team circled around as we opened the container and unrolled the map on the conference room table. Expecting to see a sea of green jungle, blue networks of rivers and streams, brown contour lines depicting elevation, and with any luck, black lines outlining a few trails, we were not ready for the one color we did see: White.
Everything was white.
The only other color on nearly the entire map was the thin black of the grid lines. We saw hundreds of square kilometers of neatly divided blocks of white space. The area was so remote, that much of it had never been mapped. Only a small corner of the map depicted any terrain detail at all.
We dutifully plotted the grid coordinate we had. It put the likely crash site out in the middle of the white space. For all we could tell, we could just as easily be headed to a polar ice cap as triple canopy jungle.
I called my contact back; he apologized but said that was all he had. He knew that we would need more information before we could launch the team. He promised to get back to us ASAP.
An hour later, he called back. “Stand down” was the word, the pilot has been recovered. Fortunately, Air Force Search and Rescue forces had been able to get him out. We were glad the pilot was going to be OK, but the experience left an indelible mark in my mind, and more than a few questions.
Five Questions to Ask
Whether we’re preparing to launch a rescue team into an unmapped expanse of mangrove swamp, or a business team to tackle the next big project, before we give the “go” signal, there’s some critical work to be done. Even if we have the best trained team around, we’re doing them a disservice as leaders if we launch them without solid answers to these five questions:
1. What is the vision? Everyone involved should know exactly what we are trying to achieve with this effort, and what success looks like. A short, clear vison statement, easily memorized, and free from buzz-words and filler jargon can help get people focused and synchronize their efforts.
2. Do they have the resources they need? The courier from HQ gave us grid coordinates and a map, but little of it was any use. To keep our teams from getting lost in the jungle, we have to think through the obstacles they are likely to face and what they may need to overcome them, whether it’s time, money, equipment, training, skilled people, or a set of authorities to allow them to get the job done.
3. How will they measure progress? This is important for everyone involved. Like any SMART goal, it’s hard to know how you’re doing if you can’t quantify forward movement in some way. Whether it’s testing results, production numbers, or some other metric, figure out what is important, then find a simple way to measure it. Like prominent terrain features on a good map, knowing where we are relative to where we want to go is the first big step in getting there.
4. Do they have the latitude they need? Equipping them and pointing them in the right direction is only part of the equation. The Pan-American highway stops at the Darién; sixty-six miles of the “highway” are practically impassible by car. Determined travelers have to bypass the area by boat, plane, or else make the attempt on foot (not recommended). We should ask if our own teams have the same flexibility to alter course if their planned route is blocked. A sense of autonomy is empowering and motivating.
5. Then what? In the event the team is successful, what is the next step? Knowing what comes next can help the team accomplish the mission in a way that future success is also more likely. If making the sale today poisons the relationship tomorrow, we may end up more lost in the jungle then when we started. As leaders we need to be thinking several steps ahead so that the map we send out to the team has more than just blocks of white space.
Lost in the Jungle – The Takeaway
With what little we knew, would we have launched the team? At night? Into that environment? With no points of reference? If we were the best hope for success, perhaps.
But a “Just go, and we’ll sort it out along the way” approach would have been dangerous. In the worst of cases, the rescuers might need rescuing themselves. It’s fortunate that we never had to find out.
When it comes to launching our own teams on new projects, the same considerations apply. The goal must be clear, the team trained and resourced. There has to be a way to measure progress, the team needs the latitude to choose the best route to the objective, and an understanding of what comes next.
Before launching our teams on any new mission, we owe it to them to have answers to these questions, or we all risk getting lost in the jungle.
Map Photo Credit: Defense Mapping Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons