Archaeology Crew Chiefs are the Real X-Factor


It’s been a long time since I did my first Level of Effort estimate. In case you don’t know, a Level of Effort estimate is an educated guess on how long it will take for your co-workers or employees to accomplish a given project. It’s important for scoping a proposal or for project managers that want to know how doable a project is. Sometimes the level of effort is grossly underestimated or purposely curtailed in order to land a project. Other times, it seems like you’ve got all the time in the world.

Basically, project managers aren’t always handed projects that can feasibly be finished in the estimated time allotment. They have to depend on their crews to get the job done and archaeological crew chiefs play an integral role.

Creating a Level of Effort estimate is really similar to placing a Trifecta Box Wheel bet at the horse track. What’s that you say? You’re one of the many people working in cultural resource management, historic preservation, or heritage conservation that doesn’t know what a trifecta box wheel bet is? Let me explain:

• A trifecta is a bet you can make at the horse track where you attempt to guess which 3 horses will finish first, second, or third. In order to win, you also have to guess the exact order those 3 horses will finish. This is usually a $2 bet in the United States.
• A trifecta box bet is where you pay extra money to choose any 3 horses to finish first, second, or third in any order. All you have to do is pick the first 3 horses. Since this is technically 6 different $1 bets, it costs 3 times as much (at least $6 in the U.S.).
• Aside from being a mouthful to say at the betting table, a trifecta box wheel bet is where you’re betting on the first 3 horses in any order AND paying a little more to throw more horses into the mix. So, you’re paying for 4+ horses to come in first, second, and third in any order. This bet is usually much more expensive than a simple trifecta bet and can grow to the limits as the horse track will allow (usually up to 5-6 horses depending on the race).

(If you enjoy excitement, the thrill of winning money, and drinking alcohol, I strongly recommend going to the horse track. Every time I’ve been it has been an enlightening experience.)

As you can see, a trifecta box wheel is a pretty complicated bet. And it’s expensive. The idea is that you’re hedging your bet with extra money. You can win big, but you can also lose a lot of money. In order to be successful, you have to know the race track, the capabilities of the horses involved, and their past performance on similar race tracks in order to even come close.

This is the same as estimating Level of Effort for a cultural resource management project. You’re betting that your co-workers or employees can finish a given project in a specific amount of time. This means you have to know what kind of project area you’ve got, what your people can do, and, based on what they’ve done in the past, how you think they’ll finish this particular project.

It’s an educated guess that can either make money or lose it.

But people aren’t horses. And CRM crews have an “X-Factor” that no horse will.

I’ve been working in cultural resources for about a decade and have noticed that human beings have complicated and wonderful brains. CRM crews have crew chiefs. It is through these crew chiefs (and their brains) that most projects come to either a successful conclusion or disastrous ruin.

As I’ve written in my upcoming book on how to successfully run small cultural resource management projects, the actions of crew chiefs, field directors, and every mid-level supervisor involved are the real factors that can successfully finish a tightly budgeted project. You are the glue that holds the whole thing together. Crew chiefs are the interlopers between upper management and the folks on the ground tasked with actually doing the fieldwork or research.

Here are three observations I’ve made by working with some of the best crew chiefs in the business:

1) They think of the project’s true goals: As I wrote in this post on Random Acts of Science, it is absolutely paramount that crew chiefs know the stated and unstated goals of every cultural resource management project. Sometimes, these are clear, like “your company wants to make/save money.” Sometimes it isn’t as clear, like when a client just wants you to “not find anything significant.”

Our industry is wedged between capitalist interests, local communities, and our Hippocratic Oath as scientists/historians/architects. Needless to say, there can be conflicts. It is easier to avoid problems with supervisors, clients, and the local community when you have an idea of the politics inherent in each project. The best crew chiefs know this.

2) They boost morale: Have you ever worked at a company or on a crew where all the people just want to do the bare minimum? They all want to do it as easily as possible. Nobody wants to go the extra mile. Nobody cares about personal improvement, even the crew chiefs.

I have and it sucks, literally. It feels like two 300-pound vampires are sucking on your neck every day, all day long. It’s hard not to give in and become morose as well. I dreaded each day at these places.

On the other hand, have you ever worked at a company where everyone was happy to work hard and tried their best at all times? Amongst people that took pride in their work and used their intelligence to make the best of every project, regardless of how tight the budget was. For a company that had a great reputation in your field.

I’ve also worked under these conditions and it felt awesome. I didn’t mind taking fewer breaks or writing a little more. Each week I was motivated to do more and eager to further my career. Those are the conditions that make me feel great about going to work.
The difference between the companies you’d like to work for and the ones you’d never consider is the people that work there. It all has to do with the folks you work with, especially the supervisors.

Great crew chiefs give that extra morale boost that gets their co-workers motivated and keeps them moving. Think about it. The bosses you love working with do the little extra things that boost your morale. They give compliments when they’re deserved and go the extra mile to support their crew. Good bosses throw their heart into each project and show strong work ethic. They’re they lead the charge and encourage others to follow.

3) They pick up the slack: This is essential. A good crew chief should be able to do every single task they ask of their crew. The best crew chiefs can do every task quickly and correctly. That’s what all mid-level managers should all aspire to accomplish.
When the digging is taking too long, a good crew chief digs. When you find too many artifacts or archaeology sites, a good crew chief finds a way to complete the paperwork. When the crew gets tired and doesn’t want to move another inch, a great crew chief takes things into her/his hands and gets everyone back on their feet. When problems arise, whatever they may be, an excellent crew chief addresses the problem head on and strives to create an equitable resolution.

All the best crew chiefs I’ve worked under had these characteristics. All of the worst ones I’ve worked for had none of them.
These three observations are by no means an exhaustive list of characteristics the best crew chiefs have. The very best have these three traits and a lot more. I’ve worked for crew chiefs that would put me to shame. Once, I worked for a guy that pulled 10—11-hour days in the field and stayed up until 1AM writing and editing journal articles. I worked for another woman that could dig more shovel probes than me while she did all the GPS work, wrote notes, and managed another project over her cell phone. The best crew chiefs are legendary.

Good crew chiefs are the real X-factor that can’t be accounted for when making a Level of Effort estimate. Good employees with good leadership= profitable projects and excellent morale.

I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

Keep reading the Succinct Research blog for information on my upcoming book on Small Cultural Resource Management Project Success.

Learn how my résumé-writing knowledge helped four of my fellow archaeologists land cultural resources jobs in a single week!

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