Management Lesson From The Boy Scouts: What Looks Simple From The Inside May Be Complex From The Outside

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.
Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

For the past few days I have been helping in a small way on a large crowd control effort. My son’s Boy Scout troop parks cars at the local county fair every summer. The boys plan and execute it each year. This is a huge undertaking, as tens of thousands attend the fair. It’s one of the largest in the area. The temperatures out on the fairgrounds can easily reach 95 and above.

The task involves getting cars into the fairgrounds, up to the people who take payment for parking, and then onto the parking lot and directed to the right space. It is a constantly fluid situation and the leader in charge (one of the older boys) has to make decisions about where to direct manpower, how best to fill in parking rows, and how to handle unforeseen situations.

Everyone in the whole troop, boys and adults, pitches in. I was just one of many.

The adults’ roles are few. We drive a golf cart around to the boys at various stations, making sure they have water. We jump in where necessary to help if there are backups (this is amusingly called being a part of a “Fast Action Response Team”). And we flag the cars at the main gate as they enter the fairgrounds, and then at a key turn from the parking payment area into the actual parking lots. These are seen as “unsafe” for the boys because we are actually in (or almost in) traffic.

The Challenges Of Crowds

I mostly worked the main gate, flagging cars in from the road into the fairgrounds. People came in from two directions, and I had to get them to line up into the leftmost two lanes in a three lane road (we kept the right lane free for emergency vehicles).

There were some fundamental issues that made this difficult:

  • Not only are there a lot of people, but each one has his or her own goal: They want to get into the fair and don’t want to wait.
  • While we did our best to make it easy, people were disoriented: They were being asked to follow signs, flags, and hand-waves  in ways they are not used to.
  • Each carload of people is being asked to relinquish control: We tell them where to park; they don’t get to pick their spot.
  • There are many possibilities for special circumstances that can disrupt flow: There were more kinds of unique situations that came up than anyone could have prepared for, as everyone is different.

I came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the role of tradition and institutional knowledge. This troop has been doing this for decades, and there is a vast amount of lore that is passed on from generation to generation. Many of the things that did not make initial sense to me but that were done “because we have always done them this way” turned out to be exactly right.

The Difficulty Of Simplicity

I also came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the difficulty of simplicity. We tried our hardest to make it dead simple for people. In fact, I think it was about as simple as it could possibly be. Enter, follow the flags, park your car.

For many drivers, this was a challenge. Some weren’t paying attention, others wanted to maximize their personal convenience and find the “best” spot, some did not realize it would cost money to pay to park, some had kids yelling in the car about visiting the midway, some were not used to seeing young boys waving flags and telling them where to go, some just were confused.

Many drivers did things that disrupted flow. Some stopped, or tried to park on their own, or just went into the wrong lane. Some wanted special consideration, and not unreasonably so. As workers, it was frustrating because it seemed simple — because we knew the system. Follow it, and all will be well.

But, to the drivers, it was all new. And we were asking them to give up control. “Trust us, follow our lead, we’ll get you parked.” This turned out to be terribly difficult for many people. (As it would be for anyone, I imagine.)

Management Lesson From The Scouts

If you look at the four bullets above that made this overall task difficult, you can see that they can apply to lots of different situations, even ones where there are not crushing volumes of people. Web sites, meetings, publications, strategic plans, organizational change efforts — lots of things.

And the main wrinkle here is this: Even things that look simple, from the inside, may still be quite complex when viewed from the outside. And in the doing, there are always unforeseen special circumstances.

I am going to try to keep this in mind the next time I design a training session, write a report, or develop some new system. No matter how simple I think it is, it can probably be simpler. But then, when I have made it as simple as possible, it may not be that easy. And I will always try to have a way to handle special circumstances.

I am very thankful for this small lesson, taught me by an incredibly dedicated and helpful Boy Scout troop.

2 thoughts on “Management Lesson From The Boy Scouts: What Looks Simple From The Inside May Be Complex From The Outside”

  1. Having worked the Fair with the Scouts for the last few years, I am always fascinated by unique developments to what should be a simple process. I would suggest one of the tenets of scouting is also a key to the strength of this particular program – respect. The Scouts are taught to be respectful, no matter what the situation. Seems simple and intuitive, and yet in business, in the service industry, in day to day dealings with the anonymous drivers on the road, what the Boy Scouts know to be a necessity of life seems to be missing, more often than not. Kudos to Troop 447.

  2. Hi Brad
    Your blog on Scouts reminded me of something a little off your subject, but maybe you’ll find it interesting. The Scout Council in our area is promoting the (third?) annual Ten Commandments Hike the day after Thanksgiving. Our church will be the first stop, and so we will be addressing a few thoughts about the First Commandment, and then spend a few minutes talking about our faith tradition. Then, also at our church, the Second Commandment will be addressed by a Muslim Imam, who will also speak a little about his faith tradition. The hike covers about four miles, and the scouts will bring their lunches. Thought you might enjoy hearing about the idea.

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