I just got finished with running the fall wilderness orientation program at Princeton University. This was our largest program in our thirty-four year history with 644 freshmen, 165 leaders, 46 Support Team members and 12 Command Center staff. We ran 74 different trip groups of 10-12 per group in areas from the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia to the Green Mountains in Vermont. This is one of the largest single wilderness orientation programs in North America. Now that I've decompressed some from the busy week and all the gear has been put away, I thought I'd share some of the techniques I've developed for running 'mega' programs like this one. Being a tech geek I've found that technology has been an essential tool for me to handle the vast amounts of data that one has to process when dealing with this many people, spread out over this large an area. You can also view Part 1 and Part 3.
Okay, this is Part 2 of the 'Mega' Programs series. Once again it's all about data. I'll tell you a story that illustrates how a little piece of missing data can ripple out into a mess.
Tonight we did debriefing our some of our Support Teams in the field and finding out how one huge snafu happened on the first day of the Trip. We have one bus that drops off 5 canoeing groups along the Delaware River. The problem is that the luggage carriers under the bus aren't big enough to carry all the river bags, paddles, and PFD's for the 5 groups so we planned to have our Support Teams in mini-vans (which go with the bus to make sure the bus driver doesn't get lost) carry the paddling gear up. All the groups were told this in their briefing, but it turned out that the last group to get dropped off (we'll call them Group X) had put their paddling gear underneath the bus (and didn't clear this with me or the Support Team so we didn't know about it). The Support Van had a bunch of other group's paddling gear and assumed they had Group X's gear as well (they didn't count all the gear).
The Support Van dropped paddling gear for another group at the put-in and realized they didn't have any more gear for Group X and called the Command Center. We then tried to call Group X but couldn't get them on their cell phone. So we got another Support Van to drive to base camp, get more paddling gear and start to drive up to meet Group X at their put-in. About half-way through the drive we found out that Group X did indeed have all their paddling gear and had headed off down the river so the second Support Team turned around and drive back to base camp. Not a huge emergency but a big, and avoidable hassle.
Of course these kinds of things happen on trips. The problem is that with Mega Programs you don't just have one of these things happen you have lots of them happening all at the same time, especially on high logistical transport days like the first day and last day of a trip. Having 6 of these happen at once can suddenly cause you program, or parts of it, to grind to a complete halt. So how do you handle the incredible level of detail that's needed to make sure all your bases have been covered? Being a techno-geek I'll go back to a software program that I've found really helpful. It's called Mind Manager from a company called MindJet and it's available for Mac and PC.
I first learned about Mind Manager from my buddy Preston Cline of Adventure Management who uses it a lot in doing risk management assessments. Since I'm a visual learner and thinker I find it very intuitive and really help (though for people who aren't visually oriented it may not be your cup of tea).
Here's how it works. Mind Manager basically takes a bulleted or outlined list like you would do in Microsoft Word and turns it into a visual hierarchical map (which they call a Mind Map). Let's look at a few screenshots of my Frosh Trip Mind Map.
Here's a basic list of the top level things to do for Frosh Trip shown in Mind Manager Outline View. It looks just like any bulletted list in Word.
Now here's the typical Map View in Mind Manager
Okay you can see the visual clues here. There is a plus sign next to each of the major headings (just like there is a plus sign in the first picture). Let's click one of the plus signs next to FROSH and see what happens.
Now we see the next levels down in the FROSH category. These are all the things that we need to do in working with our program participants. We can keep going deeper and deeper by clicking on the SCREENING category. You can nest things as deeply as you want and then expand or contract nodes to see only the level of detail that you need. Trying to look at a deeply nested list in Microsoft Word makes me dizzy because I get lost as to where I am in the overall scheme of things. Not so with Mind Manager.
Now let's look at some of the detailed features as outlined in the list below and numbered on the screenshot.
- You can attach notes to items
- You can indicate Task Completion level (75%)
- Task Completed
- You can create arrows, borders, and other graphic elements to link topic areas
- You can add you own icons ('thumbs up') to identify topics (priority level, etc.)
- You can set starting and ending dates
- You can link to a Web page (www.noaa.gov)
- You can attach files to a topic
- You can link to a file from another program
And this is just a small sample of what Mind Manager can do. I use the software to keep track of all sorts of program tasks, staffing requirements, protocols, etc. Besides being able to expand and collapse nodes I could take an entire node like the PLANNING node and drag it over to some other place on my Map. If I have something "repetitive" that occurs I can create it once and then cut and paste it in other sections. For example, here's a list of things that we have to do when we run a first aid course. We have to do the same things when running a CPR course, a Leader Training Class etc. So I just copy and paste these nodes under CPR, FIRST AID, and the LEADER TRAINING nodes.
So, I've given you just a small taste of how a program like Mind Manager can help you handle the huge amounts of data you have to keep track of. When we expanded all of the nodes of FROSH TRIP and printed it out on large format paper and taped it together it was 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide! I can tell you that I definitely need a 'mind manager' to help me out with Frosh Trip and other aspects of the OA Program and this piece of software really does the trick. If you think it might help you, download a trial copy from MindJet.com and test it out. For people in K-12 schools or Higher Education you can find educational discounts for Mind Manager at places like AcademicSuperstore.com.
All of these things are just tools in your tool chest. The key thing in running 'mega' programs is that there is an incredible amount of data collection and transmission that has to take place. These are some of the tools that I've found indispensable in tracking trips, people, and information effectively. Hope it helps you in your next 'Mega' Program.