PM Tips from a Park Ranger

There's more in common than you think

Park Rangers and Project Managers have more in common than you think.
Before managing projects in Boston, I was a Park Ranger for several summers in Alaska, South Dakota, and Massachusetts. Very few of my coworkers knew this until one of them stumbled on a blog I wrote in 2013 documenting my first summer in Alaska, along with a photo of me. Yes, I wore a Smokey the Bear hat (even though Smokey represents the US Forest Service, not the National Park Service, like me). 
As a Park Ranger, I worked directly with the public to inform people about the local area’s cultural and natural history. I staffed visitor center desks, gave presentations, wrote brochures and interpretive programs, and even managed parks’ websites. 
When I wrote that blog back in Alaska, I had to pay $5/hour to use the Internet at a local café. I tweaked background images, formatting, and fonts to achieve an ideal composition, and had to wait several minutes each time I hit “Publish” for any change to load. Little did I know that within a handful of years I would be a PMP-Certified Senior Project Manager for a digital marketing agency in Boston.
Today as a Project Manager, I am as ready as ever to deliver excellent customer service – just, sans campaign hat. Here are some Project Management skills I’ve learned from my Park Service days that I hope you can use on your next project:

1. Consider all your stakeholders.

National Parks attract a variety of visitors: young and old, tour groups and solo adventurers, locals and international travelers. My goal was to encourage a sense of stewardship in each visitor, so I carefully tailored my interpretive programs to connect emotionally and intellectually to the groups to whom I presented. Addressing the needs of each of my project’s key stakeholders is still vital to success. Not considering everyone that needs to be involved early in the process can throw a wrench in the timeline down the road.

2. Remember the value of documentation. 

Often, Rangers would arrive at the park well before the summer tourist season to research and develop our tours and programs. I learned then how valuable proper documentation can be. The information and materials gathered and developed by seasonal Rangers in previous years could save me hours and hours of exhaustive research and analysis. Today, whether onboarding a team member, reevaluating our process, or revisiting an issue we’ve researched and resolved before, good documentation is essential to saving time and effort. Write. It. Down. and keep it organized. Your future self will thank you. 

3. Know your project. 

While giving my programs, I always had to be prepared for questions from the public. “What year was this built?” “How cold does it get here in the winter?” “What is the local population?” Knowing my material not only made me look great but kept the program moving smoothly. The same is true with project work – I do the best I can to understand as much of the industry knowledge as possible, especially if I am working with clients or third parties who are experts themselves. Knowing your project inside and out gives you the confidence to stay agile and move quickly as expectations from your stakeholders or results of the campaign vary from what you anticipated.

4. Lean on your SMEs. 

Many of us get satisfaction out of figuring out a problem on our own – but generally, life is a lot easier if we just ask a Subject Matter Expert (SME). When I worked at a nuclear missile site interpreting Cold War history, I often had to translate complex technical information into concepts palatable by the public. My superiors offered me a wealth of metaphors and story-telling techniques to employ, which took my programs from merely educational to impactful, engaging, and meaningful. Today in Project Management, I call on SMEs to help me to translate complex technical issues I come across and fill in gaps where my industry knowledge falls short. When translating complex concepts to your audiences, don't be afraid to interview and lean on the SMEs in your business.
These PM tips and many more have served me well as both a Park Ranger and a Project Manager, and I hope they serve you well, too. Remember to take advantage of all your available resources to keep your projects running smoothly and efficiently, and feel free to reach out if you have questions, need help, or want to hear more about my Park Ranger days.
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