Is your team diving in dark water? Try the error box analogy to direct projects to 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 plan for the longer term.

Image: scubadesign / Shutterstock

I was listening to a podcast of Jocko Willink, Business Consultant for Navy SEAL in which he discussed the concept of an “error box” as it applied to underwater navigation. As he explained, imagine you are swimming underwater with minimal visibility to a target. You can take a compass and swim towards a 500ft 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’ve found the wall, your next step may be to move to the far right edge, resetting your error zone to zero. If you were to then take a compass bearing and swim to a 5ft wide navigation buoy, your error box would be large depending on the small target and would get bigger with each forward kick if you couldn’t find the buoy. in your forecast time. Your error box can get so big that the best solution is to either go back to the wall to reset, or abandon the plan and develop an alternative on the fly.

Awareness of the error box

The analogy with strategic planning immediately struck me. Like the diver with limited visibility and only a compass to navigate, as leaders we often have a directional sense of our purpose and limited tools to get there until it is right in front of our eyes. Also, like the diver, sometimes our goal can be so big that it’s almost impossible to miss or a tiny goal that requires a combination of skill, timing and luck to achieve it. In most situations, like the aforementioned dive, multiple goals large and small combine to create an ever-changing box of errors and maybe even the need to revise a goal or completely revise the plan.

The biggest failure in most strategic planning efforts is to strive to create the perfect plan and then assume that it will never change or evolve based on an expanding or expanding error box. contraction. Most strategic plans recognize that more than one step is necessary to achieve the strategy, but they do not take into account the potential error conditions associated with completing each step and the fact that these error conditions can and will vary widely.

Like our hypothetical scuba diver, some elements of our strategic plan could be a giant edifice that is almost impossible to miss. Plus, like our diver, these easy-to-locate intermediate destinations provide the opportunity to regroup, recalibrate, and find a preset starting point for the next objective.

In strategic planning, these milestones may take the form of quarterly reviews, dependent projects, or external evaluations. In each case, use the intermediate goal to assess your current error box. Determine if your strategy is achieving its goals and if your assumptions about the organization and the broader market are still true.

Using the error box

The main way to use the error zone is to consider the steps between the key elements of your strategy. A mental picture of the error box, or even a simple whiteboard diagram, can allow you and your team to discuss the “known unknowns” between the different elements of your strategy, which is equivalent to determining. if you swim to a distance of 500 feet. large building or a small buoy in a vast ocean.

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These discussions not only align your team, but provide guidance on the right metrics and measurement tools for each element of your strategy. Some will need little more than our divers’ hypothetical plane to swim in a rough direction until they hit a large wall. On the other hand, others will require a frequent and detailed assessment of where you are, the direction you are heading, and the current state of the environment.

The relatively simple 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 are broadly in agreement, discussions can move on to moving forward or mitigating a large error box. If the answers are everywhere, you, as a leader, have done a poor job of raising awareness of the goals, metrics, and progress of your strategy to date, a situation that needs to be rectified as quickly as possible.

Concepts like the error box will not result in a perfect strategic plan or guarantee success. However, it is a conceptually straightforward tool that can stimulate meaningful discussions about risk tolerance, the likelihood of success, and how to measure and correct your progress. With little more than a pen or marker required, try using the error box in your next strategic planning session.

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