Lessons from Scout Camp

Hello again Datafam!

It’s been a bit of a busy summer for me, trying to squeeze all of the enjoyment I can out of the all-too-short summer months here in Minneapolis.  That’s included a fishing trip to Canada, a few camping trips, and surviving a direct hit from a durecho during a visit to our cabin.  Recently, I was also able to spend a week at Many Point Scout Camp with my son and his troop.

From early in my childhood, Scouting has been an important part of my life and my personal development.  As a youth, Scouting helped me learn to set goals for myself and develop the foundations for my leadership style.  It helped me build confidence and spend quality time with my friends and my father.  Earning the rank of Eagle Scout remains one of my proudest moments, and the only one from my youth that I’ve kept on my resume to this day.  Scouting has been in my blood for basically my entire life, but this was my first time spending a week at camp as an adult leader instead of as a scout.  And boy, does that give you a different perspective.

Much as many of the lessons learned in Scouting have transfered to other areas of life, I decided to share some lessons from Scout camp that will make me better as an analyst and a leader.

You’re going to burn a few pancakes

As Scout leaders, one of our main jobs is to ensure that the boys have an environment that encourages them to experiment and learn.  At summer camp, our troop cooks all of our meals on a sheepherder stove (something like this if you’re not familiar).  A first year scout is probably not going to be an expert in cooking on something like that.  But with the guidance of older scouts, they build their skills as the week goes on.

This stood out to me during one morning when we had pancakes for breakfast.  The scouts brought the pan of pancakes to the table, and those at the top were beautiful.  But, as you worked your way down the stack you could see, in reverse, all that the scouts had learned in the process.  As leaders, it’s our job to make sure that scout recognizes the progress they’ve made, and show them that eating a few burned pancakes isn’t that big of deal.

We can take these same lessons into our own teams and data work.  When I look at my early work in Tableau, I can see a lot of burned pancakes in that pile.  But each one of those vizzes helped me learn and improve.  Constructive feedback from peers in the community pushed me to keep trying new things and develop my own style.  To paraphrase Thomas Edison, I was finding a lot of ways to not make effective visualizations.  Eventually I found what worked for me.

Make sure your teams have safe spaces to fail.  Celebrate the hell out of the perfect pancakes.  Enjoy the burned ones for what they are; important nourishment for the learning process.  Compliment the progress that’s made, and make sure it’s never lost on the ones who’re making it.

Nothing beats a fun and engaging environment for learning

Throughout the week, Scouts are learning new skills and working toward merit badges.  Despite spending around half of their day “in-class”, we do not hear many complaints about their week at camp.  This is because the environment and the camp staff make you want to learn!  The staff at camp is energetic, empathetic, and is always looking to help a scout embrace what’s unique about themselves.  Every scout is encouraged to try anything they are interested in, then encouraged and acknowledged for their effort.

If you’re training a team on a new tool or skill, take this to heart.  Encourage people who are going out of their comfort zones, and acknowledge the effort involved in doing so.  It’s not always easy to put ourselves out there knowing we may fail.  Foster an environment that encourages this experimentation and celebrates the learning that follows.

Never hold yourself in place

At the opening campfire, the camp director challenged the Scouts to view each year at camp as a brand new experience and to try everything again.  Maybe last year you couldn’t quite make it to the top of the climbing tower or pass the swimming test.  Try again, because it’s a new year.

He told a story about a man, passing a group of elephants and noticing that they were held in place by just a small piece of rope.  No chains, no fences, just a small piece of rope an elephant could easily break.  Confused, the man asked one of the trainers why the elephants never run away.  The trainer said when the elephants were small, the same size rope was used to hold them in place.  The elephants were conditioned from a young age to believe they could not break the rope.  Despite the fact that they’d grown bigger and stronger, they simply stopped trying to break free.  They didn’t BELIEVE they could break the rope and quit trying.  Their lack of belief was holding them in place.

For the Scouts, that means taking another crack at the climbing tower or the swimming test and giving the bigger, stronger version of themselves the chance to break free.  As professionals, it means we cannot allow the failures of our past to define our futures.  Each day we become bigger, stronger, better versions of ourselves.  Give that better version of you a fresh crack at those challenges.  Approach each day (or week, or project) as a brand new experience that the current version of you is facing for the first time.

Take time for reflection

At the end of the week, our troop gathered for a “roses, buds, thorns” session.  This is where every scout shares the best thing about camp (rose), something we can improve on (buds), and something that maybe we can skip next time (thorns).  Giving everyone the opportunity to share and reflect helps ensure that our next trip to camp runs smoothly.

We see this same type of ceremony in high-functioning agile teams.  Retrospectives on your sprints are in important part in how a team evolves the way it works.  Take time at the end of your projects for reflection on what worked well and what you can adjust next time.  These reflections are a critical part of the learning process.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Scouting is still teaching me valuable lessons, but I was surprised by just how many parallels I was able to draw over the course of the week.  Can’t wait to see all of the growth and lessons our troop gathers next year!

Until next time,


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