Is your team diving in dark water? Try the error box analogy to navigate projects toward a goal

Navy SEALs use the concept of an error box when navigating in dark water to help them find their targets. This concept can also help your team with longer-range planning.

scuba divers exploring the caves underwater cave diving with blue water

Image: scubadesign/Shutterstock

I was listening to a podcast from Navy SEAL-turned-business-consultant Jocko Willink in which he discussed the concept of the "error box" as it applied to underwater navigation. As he explained it, imagine you're swimming underwater with minimal visibility toward a target. You might take a compass and swim toward a 500-foot wide wall, creating a small error box (fewer errors expected) based on your likely ability to find the rather large wall.

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Once you find the wall, your next step might be moving to the rightmost edge, resetting your error box to zero. If you then had to take a compass bearing and swim toward a 5-foot-wide navigation buoy, your error box would be large based on the tiny target and grow larger with each forward kick if you didn't find the buoy within your predicted time. Your error box might become so large that the best course of action is to either return to the wall to reset or abort the plan and develop an alternative on the fly.

Error box awareness

The analogy to strategic planning struck me immediately. Like the diver with limited visibility and only a compass to navigate, as leaders, we often have a directional sense of our objective and limited tools to get there until it's right in front of our eyes. Also, like the diver, sometimes our objective might be so large that it's almost impossible to miss or a tiny goal that requires a combination of skill, timing and luck to hit. In most situations, like the aforementioned dive, multiple objectives large and small conspire to create a constantly changing error box and perhaps even the need to revisit an objective or revise the plan altogether.

The greatest failure in most strategic planning efforts is striving to create the perfect plan and then making the assumption that it will never change or evolve based on an expanding or contracting error box. Most strategic plans recognize that there are multiple steps required to realize the strategy but they fail to consider the potential error conditions of achieving each step and the fact that those error conditions can and will vary wildly.

Like our hypothetical SCUBA diver, some elements of our strategic plan might be a giant edifice that's nearly impossible to miss. Also, like our diver, these easily located interim destinations provide an opportunity to regroup, recalibrate and find a pre-defined jumping-off point for the next objective.

In strategic planning, these interim objectives might take the form of quarterly reviews, dependent projects or external assessments. In each case, use the interim objective to assess your current error box. Determine whether your strategy is meeting its objectives and your assumptions around the broader organization and market are still holding true.

Using the error box

The primary way to use the error box is to consider the steps between key elements of your strategy. A mental image of the error box, or even a simple whiteboard diagram, can allow you and your team to discuss the "known unknowns" between different elements of your strategy, performing the equivalent of determining whether you're swimming toward a 500-foot wide edifice or a tiny buoy in a vast ocean.

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These discussions not only align your team but provide guidance on the metrics and measurement tools that are appropriate for each element of your strategy. Some will require little more than our hypothetical divers' plan to swim in an approximate direction until they run into a big wall. In contrast, others will require frequent, detailed assessment of where you are, which direction you're heading and the current state of the surrounding environment.

The relatively straightforward idea of the error box can also be a great way to frame discussions about the progress of your strategy. After explaining the concept, you can even ask key stakeholders to write down their perceived T-shirt size (S, M, L, XL) of the error box. If all parties broadly agree, discussions can shift to moving forward or mitigating a large error box. If responses are all over the map, you as the leader have done a poor job of providing awareness of your strategy's objectives, measures and progress to date, a situation that must be rectified as quickly as possible.

Concepts like the error box won't result in a perfect strategic plan or guarantee success. However, they're a conceptually simple tool that can spur meaningful discussions about risk tolerance, probability of success and how to measure and course-correct your progress. With little more than a pen or marker required, try using the error box during your next strategic planning session.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...