Build a Cohesive Culture on Your Project – Day Camp Revisited

A few months ago I did a post on my experiences many years ago at a day camp in West Des Moines, Iowa; and how those experiences shaped my project management philosophy.  Lately, I’ve gotten a few notes and comments on that post from former day campers.  One (a vice president at a manufacturing company) gave me a call and we reminisced about the pea green pond (and its monster), snipe hunts, the big brown bus, Shady Creek and the woods, and swimming at Camp Dodge pool.  What struck me was that our great experiences were still a positive influence on our lives.  So, what can we learn from day camp that helps us on our projects?

shady creek 020913

So you have a visual reference for the stories that follow, here’s a Google map of the camp.  It’s long since fallen victim to suburbanization. The past camper I talked to visited the site not long ago and says you can still see evidence of the campsites along the creek.  The camp moved in the early 80’s.  I’ve marked the layout of what it used to look like every summer when it was an old farm that rented us the space.

At day camp, our goal was that everyone would have fun.  This could be a challenge.  When a dozen counselors and 90 kids came together for two weeks at day camp, it wasn’t like being at home.  So, we needed to build our own little culture that was easy to assimilate and that tried to ensure that everyone had fun.  Here are some things we did to help with that:

Set simple rules:  First day we all sat down on the big hill and talked about camp.  There was one rule: everyone had to have fun.  Sounded easy, but you had to think about others.  That meant sharing and taking turns, no fighting, being fair, etc.  Conflicts were usually resolved by asking “Were you all having fun?”  “No.” “Why not?” “She wasn’t sharing.” “Why not?” “He pushed me.” “What can you do different to have fun?”  Believe it or not, it usually worked out.  I’d hear the rule often repeated by counselors and kids.  It was a good rule.

Fill the time:  We had quite a bit of time on the big brown bus (and the less camp-like yellow one we had to rent when we got too big).  Most kids rode the bus to camp and back home.  We took the bus to a big pool for swimming lessons almost every day 20 minutes each way.  The bus could be hot and crowded and we could be smelly. It was important to turn wait times into productive fun times by singing and learning new songs.  There was the Bear Song, the Skunk Song, the Watermelon Song, Found a Peanut, The Ants Go Marching, Kumbaya, and lots more.  We sang loud and learned verses and tunes that never left us.  Singing during wait times kept us focused on the right things.

Create a unique and consistent identity: Campers got T-shirts which lots of them wore every day washed or not.  We had a name for every place and activity and routine. And we told stories and had events that were unique to us.  The pea green pond (unlike the park-like picture) was a reedy smelly green pond scum covered swampy place.  And it had its own monster that, while no one had ever seen it, could emerge if we didn’t respect its privacy.  Every day we want to chapel after raising the flag to hear a story or have a skit that reinforced a camp value like working together or respecting nature.

Do things for the right reason:  Another unique event was our snipe hunt.  It happened on the overnight stay at the end of the two week session.  It was set up with a long story about the snipes – beautiful red, blue, and golden colored chick-like birds that wandered the trail at night.  Snipes, very valuable, could be caught if we worked together.  After dark we’d make a long line of campers and counselors where each person touched the one ahead of them and shined their flash lights as they walked slowly along the campsite trail.  We’d pause occasionally to jump up and down yelling “Snipe!”  The snipes would flee the trail and woods.  Our line would slither back to the big hill and form a circle capturing the snipes inside it.  We’d turn off the flashlights, crouch down, and creep crouched with fingers on the ground to catch the snipes as they tried to escape our grasp.  Those little birds always got away, but lots of grazes and near captures were reported.  The reason for the snipe hunt wasn’t to trick, it was to try together.

Get dirty:  We were camping by a creek, after all.  The hot summer weather made it possible to get wet and muddy and still get hosed off and dry before going swimming.  For us, getting dirty meant that you could try new things and make a mess without getting in trouble.  So long as everyone was having fun.

Give back:  All the camps I’ve been part of had an admirable record of campers returning for many years and graduating to be counselors. We encouraged that by having junior counselors who were only a couple years removed from camper status that would (usually) be good role models.  We also gave the older kids at camp opportunities to do skits and lead songs.  Sticking with it had its benefits.  The article below has a quote from a counselor that I remember being a standout camper 9 years earlier. (Credit goes to my sister, Linda, for designing the T-shirts in the picture.)

ymca day camp 020913 e

So, it’s a nice Saturday and I’m not going to try too hard to turn this long reminisce into a longer analogy for project management.  You can do that yourself.  Think about how you can set simple rules, fill the time, create a unique identity, do things for the right reason, get dirty, and give back to form a cohesive culture on your project that leads to better collaboration and results.  You might catch a snipe, or have fun, learn, and grow closer trying.  That’s the point.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2013 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”  

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