Camino de Santiago and the project management lessons learned on the way

Camino de Santiago is one of the most renowned catholic pilgrimages in the world. The traditional route – the French Way – starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port (France), ends in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), and is about 800 km long. Although its origins were purely religious, today more and more people are perceiving it as a journey towards their inner self or as a means for overcoming personal limitations and reflecting on pressing matters in their lives.

My Camino de Santiago started in Pamplona and ended in Muxia, at the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted just a little over a month (July 22nd – August 26th, 2019) and the decision to leave was made at the beginning of May that same year. It is said that Camino de Santiago calls for you and I believe it was the case for me too. The idea to walk the Camino came very sudden and the following day I even bought the plane ticket. So there I was with a goal set and a plane ticket, it was time for planning.

The Compostela

There were a few reasons why I decided to treat this adventure like a project. First of all, it required a considerable amount of sustained effort for a month: 20-25 km per day, while carrying a backpack that should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight (which is still quite heavy, especially after 10 km). Secondly, a journey like this entails a high level of uncertainty and risk: you can get injured because of the effort, you might be robbed, it can also get too overwhelming physically or emotionally to complete. And lastly, while I was doing the initial research about the Camino I discovered that it has also a tangible result. It is a certificate that all pilgrims that have walked at least 100 km can receive when they reach Santiago de Compostela. In order to demonstrate their effort, pilgrims carry with themselves a credential where stamps from the road are collected with their corresponding dates.

Therefore, everything about the Camino felt very similar to how projects are managed: it required planning, it was implemented in phases (daily stages in this case), validated at the end (through the Compostela) and reflected upon (in order to integrate the experience in the mundane life). And I will share in the following section what my inner project manager has experienced and learned on the way.

Having access to documented lessons learned can be “life saving”

The first thing that “hit me” was the importance of documented lessons learned, especially when you, personally, lack a similar experience. Just think about the new project managers in a company or about a time you were assigned a different kind of project than the ones you were accustomed to. How much difference it makes to have access to historical information and lessons learned from past projects?

I had never done long distance trekking prior to the Camino and there I was determined to cover almost 800 km in a month without any previous experience or knowledge about what you need and how to prepare for this kind of walk. Fortunately, the internet was full of blog articles written by people who had made the journey and shared their experience. That was how I learned about the equipment, what kind of clothes and how many I should take, about small tricks related to muscle stretches or blisters, the recommended weight of the backpack, and so on. Those tips proved life saving on the Camino and I was really grateful for having access to them.

The best project management approach is the one tailored to the needs of the project

Secondly, I realized how important tailoring is in project management, from the internal methodology, with templates and tools, to the type of life cycle. For me, the equipment (backpack, shoes, clothes, creams, vitamins, and mobile app for the route) was similar to the organizational process assets that a PM has access to, and my body similar to the needs of a particular project.

Initially, the weight of my backpack was a little over the maximum recommended and I started having muscle pains in my shoulders after the first 10 km. After a few days I decided to give up unnecessary things. For example, I took 2 disposable sheets with me, based on the recommendation of a friend who had already walked the Camino. However, by the time I did the journey, each hostel had started giving new sheets at check-in (free of charge or at a very low price). So I threw mine away. The shoes were another revealing aspect. Many of the pilgrims were wearing boots because they had crossed the Pyrenees, but really struggled with blisters later (in some situations the injuries were so severe that they were advised by medical personnel to go home). Since I knew I wouldn’t be crossing the mountains, I opted for mountain trekking sneakers, instead of boots. Not only were they lighter while walking, but they were definitely more comfortable. Adapting my equipment to my body capabilities and to the environment proved to be the best decision on the Camino (implementation wise).

Another type of tailoring that I did along the way was regarding the project management approach. At the beginning of the project I felt a very high level of uncertainty so I needed to plan in order to reduce it. I took into consideration the training period, purchasing and testing the equipment, buying the plane tickets, as well as the daily stages. But while the initial planning was very predictive, the only predictive part of the implementation was the preparation for the journey. The journey itself was done in an adaptive, Scrum based, approach. The time was fixed, the route for the day was planned the day before, but adjustable depending on the context. So many different things happen in a day on the Camino that following a plan by the book becomes impossible.

Internal processes, project management methodologies, templates and tools are all very useful at the start of a project. But without a proper adjustment to the needs of the project, precious time and energy will be wasted, instead of being invested in making better decisions for the project.

A team becomes self-organizing when some conditions are reached

The third thing I learned is how and under what conditions a self-organizing team really works. Although I started the Camino alone, I ended it as part of a group consisting of 11 people from 8 different countries. No one knew anyone else prior to the journey and everyone had started it alone, but by the end of the journey we had become like a family. So what made it possible for such a diverse group to stay together for such a long distance?

The first aspects that mattered were the commitment of all members towards the same goal (reaching Santiago) and the similar “working speed” (which was measured in walking speed). Although everyone was free to walk however they liked in a day (alone or with the others), it was clear for everyone that we would end up at our destination for the day around the same time. The similar walking speed, combined with the same goal and the great vibe that was building up in the group made everyone want to continue the journey together with the new friends.

The second factor was the reduced “interference” from the outside world (as in everyone else back home who was not doing the Camino). When you are on the Camino, you feel like you are in a bubble. Not only you have one simple goal, but walking also has this gift of making immersion even deeper. That is why, when you’re on the Camino, you don’t feel like communicating that much with the people at home. Most communications were carried out to reassure family members and friends that we were ok. This really made me think of the Scrum Master’s role in helping the team to focus. On the Camino, the goal was constantly reminded by the guiding arrows. It made it impossible to get distracted from it.

In addition to the signaling arrows, there were also some elements of material culture that contributed to the organic welding of the team: the shell (the symbol of the Camino pilgrim) and the backpack that everyone carried (on a deeper level it can be associated with the shared burden of all pilgrims). It made me realize the huge contribution that the project culture can have on the project success.

The last factors that made the Camino team perform on such a high level were the complementary skills of the team members and the daily rituals that brought stability to the process. Team members had different skills, came from different cultural and professional backgrounds, and spoke different languages. And that proved tremendously helpful in crisis situations (injuries or other emotionally triggering events). It not only helped the team overcome any issue that arose, but it made the bonds even stronger.

As for the rituals, they were very similar with the Scrum ceremonies. We planned our next day sprint in the afternoon. In the morning we performed the daily scrum consisting of the preparation routine for the road (stretching, Vaseline, patches, etc.). At each stop we reviewed our performance (wounds, stretches, pains, distance remained to be covered) and intervened when it was needed. After reaching the destination and a well deserved rest time, we reflected on our day and defined action points for the following days based on our experience. There was no day like other on the Camino, but having these rituals performed by the entire team brought a sense of stability and the necessary adjustments along the way.

These were the prerequisites that have contributed to the group becoming a self-organizing team along the way. Although I was very familiar with the Scrum principles and teams prior to the Camino, I had never been a part of a Scrum team until then. The experience made me live the Scrum principles because they made sense in that setting and not because it was planned.

Adjourning is as important as every other stage in the development of the team

The final aspect that has changed my perspective on project team management was related to the team development model of Tuckman and Jensen. More specifically, to the Adjourning phase. I am convinced that many of you have heard about Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. I had the opportunity, during that month on the Camino, to observe all these stages. We started out shy at the beginning, then small disagreements arose from misunderstood jokes. Discussions were held to clarify them and to restore the pleasant atmosphere within the group, and after a while the team became a performing one, with a steady pace and small processes in place to deal with every situation. I also noticed how we went through all the stages again when someone new entered the group. But what was really interesting was how the team dealt with the adjourning phase.

As we approached Santiago, a sense of sadness started to settle in. Everyone was starting to realize that our time together was coming to an end. Yes, we were tired after a month of intense walking and we all wanted to reach our goal, but it also meant goodbye. We were all very aware of the impact that the separation would have on us, so we decided to spend together one more day in Santiago. We needed time to reflect on our experience together and say goodbye in a proper way. Returning home was very difficult for everyone in the group, but the inner transformations that took place on the Camino, the deep friendships developed within “the family”, the allocated time to say goodbye, and the promise to see each other again made it easier to deal with.

These were the most important project management lessons I experienced on the Camino. And although project management best practices are usually addressed in a business/ organizational setting, I believe that we could benefit from applying them in every aspect of our lives, even the most personal ones.