Lost

October 23, 2016

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Last week I was out on a hunt deep in the Canadian Rockies. It was remote – really remote. There was no cell service, no wi-fi, no cable TV, no Facebook. On this hunt, I was using the services of a guide. He was a guy in his early twenties – much younger than me. Despite his age, he was very accomplished and seemed to know the area pretty well. We had the usual agreement that you typically make with hunting guides – I pay you in advance for a great hunt, and the assumption is you bag the game you are after, or at least greatly increase the likelyhood of that happening by working with a guide. Implicit in that agreement is that there are no guarantees. Hunting is an unpredictable business (at least the good hunts are) and there is no way to know if you will get your quarry or not. These things aren’t cheap though, so there is a lot of money on the line.

So there is some very real pressure to perform in a situation like this. Expectations are quite high. We were three days into the hunt with no luck yet. That’s not a long time by any means, but the game wasn’t dropping in our lap either. We weren’t seeing much, and the doubts were starting to creep in.

So we set off early in the morning on day four, driving off into the darkness. We pulled over on a nondescript logging road and I followed my guide into the bush. We followed a trail for a while that meandered through meadows and around beaver ponds. We wove in and out of dense thickets of alder and spruce, pausing every once and a while to listen to the wildlife awakening around us. At some point my guide pointed off the trail and said that we should go check out a lake deep in the brush off to one side. I shrugged and followed. After all, he’s the guide. That’s what I was paying him to do. So into the thickets we went.

As we scrambled through the brush, climbing over logs and stumbling through willow thickets, I tried to focus on just keeping up. This young guide was having no difficulty at all moving through these obstacles with relative grace. Meanwhile, this particular middle aged guy seemed to be falling down as often as he was standing back up. I finally caught up with my guide, albeit wheezing mightily.

As we paused and looked around I realized that I had been so intently focused on keeping up with the guide that I had completely lost track of where I was. He had lead me on a merry little journey and I was now totally turned around and completely dependent on him. No problem, that’s why I hired a guide in the first place. He looked around, scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot, and we proceeded onward. Another round of scrambling, more spills and recoveries and 20 minutes later we stop again.

Still no lake.

Huh. This lake was proving to be elusive. With an abashed grin my guide looked at me and said, “We might be a little bit turned around.”

I nodded and told him I certainly couldn’t tell where we were. The sky was a perfectly even overcast grey that eliminated any clue regarding the direction the sun might be in. The nearby mountains, impressive as they were, were actually blocked from view by the thick press of small trees that surrounded us on all sides. So there were actually no major landmarks available to work from. Every direction offered the same information: more trees. My guide headed off again, and I followed.

Now I was starting to wonder, just what does, “We might be a little turned around” really mean? Is my guide lost? He doesn’t look lost. He seems like he knows what he’s doing. What about me? What if he is lost? Can I be of any help? After all, I’m a middle aged hunter who has spent more than a little time in the woods. I’ve been lost before. I know a practical thing or two about survival. I’ve watched the discovery channel. I’m no Bear Grylls, but I should be able to help out, right? So now I’m starting to pay attention to my surroundings. Now I’m starting to ask myself questions like: would I go this direction or is there a better route? Why are we taking this approach? What strategy should we be using to get oriented again.

We reach a clearing and my guide pauses once more. He looks at me with that grin again and says rather apologetically, “I got us completely turned around. I don’t know where the trail is. Or the lake.”

Whoops.

Well there it was. My guide had gotten us lost. My reply, “Yes, I’m afraid I’m lost too. I have no idea which direction the trail is in.” My guide checked in with me – asking if I had been lost in the woods before. I had been, so I wasn’t too freaked out. My mind was racing, I was definitely fully engaged now, but I was not too concerned. If anything I was worried that our little side hike was about to become a big adventure if we couldn’t find our way back to that that trail again.

I found myself in what I think of as “information gathering mode” at this point. What landmarks do I have? Well, we were standing in this little clearing. That’s a landmark, I could establish ordinal directions from the clearing (front, behind, left, right) and I could see a little rise nearby. That’s really all we could see. All other landmarks or clues regarding direction were completely absent. So the first thing that we did was go over and climb the small rise to see if we could see anything from the top.

Nope.

More trees. So we back tracked in the direction that we had entered the meadow from. We encountered another small open spot in the trees. Now we had a little bit of a map in our heads with the meadow as our basis point. We continued to expand outward from the meadow, and soon, much to our mutual relief, we stumbled upon our original trail that we had begun from. Phew!

As we strolled back to the car I couldn’t help but reflect on the similarity of this experience with some of my recent consulting engagements. In many, hopefully obvious, ways a professional guide is very much like a paid coach or consultant. You have contracted with him to achieve a certain objective: transform your development organization, reach a performance goal, hit a financial target, or shoot a moose. It’s usually something pretty specific. It’s something that you might be able to do on your own, but hopefully by hiring the guide you reduce the risk of failure and bring some assurance of success. That’s what you hire them for. They don’t come with a crystal ball, so they can’t guarantee you success (transformations can fail for many good reasons, moose are fickle creatures that may or may not appear), but nevertheless, you hired them on the explicit premise that indeed they can deliver – make no mistake about that. In fact there is usually significant amounts of money on the line – enough money that you feel some urgency to see success, and the guide feels some urgency to deliver. So the contract we take is very similar.

[Lesson: make sure you know exactly what you are being paid to hunt (protip: “being agile” ain’t it)]

The curious thing for me was the experience from the client point of view. I realized that I gave up any of my own competence and ownership for the outcome to the guide the minute he started to do his job. I was a modestly experienced hunter and outdoorsman, and yet as soon as I hired a guide, I stopped paying attention to the landmarks around me and just started following in the footsteps of the guide in front of me. I’ve experienced this phenomena from the reverse perspective as a consultant in the boardroom too. I’ve had clients look at me and say (almost verbatim), “Tom, you’re the expert. You’ve done this many times before. How should we do X?” These are very capable and quite experienced managers who are putting aside their own expertise and asking for mine. Well, perhaps not putting aside their own experience, but let me put it like this: these are smart, experienced people who are treating me as if I have more experience than they do. Perhaps I do. Maybe I don’t. My guide on that hunt was literally half my age. Yet I was expecting him to lead me on a hunt and achieve a better outcome than someone with twice his age and experience. Admittedly, I didn’t have his experience in the local area, but nevertheless, I was deferring years of expertise to a guide who may or may not have had years of experience in this particular area. In fact, for all I know, I could have been his first client.

[Lesson: your guide may not know more than you do – don’t give up your expertise and competence and follow in their footsteps blindly. As the client, it’s important to keep your wits about you so that you can help assure a successful outcome.]

I’ve found that one of the harder things to do when getting lost is admitting that you are really lost. I remember clearly that feeling of denial as I was following my guide. “Really? We’re lost? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I left my compass in the car? AAaargh!” It’s hard for the client to admit they are lost to begin with, because it’s a threat to their perceived competence – you feel stupid and nobody likes that.

And what about the guide? When you are the guide, admitting that you are lost is crazy hard. Getting lost is probably the one thing the customer is paying you NOT to do. So there is a lot of pressure on a guide to never admit they are lost. But here’s the thing, as a guide you ARE being paid to find something. When the going gets tough you take chances. You look in obscure corners. You go places you haven’t gone before. You experiment. You take risks. You might get a little lost.

So I expect that of my guide. If we are not getting results, I want them to push the envelope a bit. I think many of us do. And with that comes some risk of getting lost. Similarly, organizational transformation can be very disorienting too. As a consultant, it’s terribly easy to get lost in the bewildering forest of people, politics, and technology that you typically find in any given organization of even modest complexity. Let’s face it: there are days when I’m lucky if I can find the restroom.

So I really appreciated the guides honesty with me when he realized that he was lost. That only increased my trust in his ability. As a result, I didn’t get frustrated or upset. I just wanted to get back on track as quickly as possible.

[Lesson: if your guide admits he is lost, it’s a positive reflection of character. Help them get back on track so that you can both be successful again quickly]

The other thing that I noticed was that my guide was pacing himself according to my own abilities. This kid was a veritable mountain goat. He was easily capable of climbing a ridge covered in dense thickets and downed logs without even breaking a sweat. Following him, I felt like I was following an obstacle course designed for American Ninja. He’d be there at the top of the ridge, waiting patiently every time. He was capable of doing much more, but he paced himself according to my own capabilities.

Given his youth and individual capability, he might actually have been able to deliver on the hunt much faster on his own. But when he’s bringing along some middle-aged desk jockey, things are just going to have to go at a slower pace. That’s what a good guide does – he moves at the client’s pace. Maybe he urges them on a bit, but there is a limit. The client may even have unreasonable expectations. For instance, I might like to finish the hunt in a single day, but I’m probably not capable of the physical demands necessary to do that.

In a similar fashion, as a consultant there have been some clients I’ve had who’ve expressed a desire to speed up their transformation. That’s fine unless I’m looking at an organization that is the equivalent of a 80 year old: with slow, brittle processes, a staff resistant to change, riddled with dysfunction. If you try and get them to change too quickly, you risk an organizational heart attack. So you pace things accordingly, because you want them a little winded, not wiped out and gasping for air.

[Lesson: a good guide paces themselves according to the clients capabilities. That implies that the abilities of the client – not the guide, play a large role, perhaps the most important one, in the speed of achieving the objective. A good guide recognizes those limitations and sets expectations accordingly.]

All things considered, it all ended up working out very well. Experiences like this always leave me with a great deal of respect for guides, whether they work in the woods or the silicon jungle. They work extraordinarily hard to try and deliver success for their clients. This guide was putting in nearly 16 hour days with work that was both physically and intellectually demanding. That’s got to be comparable to the amount of time your average millennial in silicon valley puts in behind a desk. OK, I take that back. Maybe it’s not comparable – this guy was working a LOT harder than that. And he had to keep a geek like me entertained. I was really impressed at the kind of dedication he had to the work he was doing. You really have to love it to work that hard. The hunt was a success, and afterward I left feeling like I had a really great guide who had taught me a valuable lesson about being a much better guide for my clients.

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The Corn Maze Strategy

October 10, 2016

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Today was our annual family visit to the pumpkin patch. We go to a local farm that is a sort of pumpkin theme park. In addition to the fields of U-pick pumpkins, they have a petting zoo, pumpkin launchers, halloween themed play structures, hay rides, and a corn maze. It was a beautiful early October afternoon, and the kids roamed through all the usual activities. Finally we got around to the corn maze.

Now you should know that as these things go, this corn maze is pretty decent. I have no idea how large it really is, but my fitbit tells me that it’s at least a few thousand steps or so. I would guess it’s a walk of a mile or two to get through it. You should also understand that it’s relatively robustly built. You really can’t see any nearby landmarks, and the paths are kept far enough apart that you can’t see other adventurers in the maze. So it’s really quite easy to get good and lost.

So I followed the family in and tagged along behind as we made our way through the maze. I was tired, so I was perfectly happy to let the kids make all the decisions and accept the consequences. The pattern usually went something like this: We would come to an intersection and pause. We would look for clues on the ground. Was one path better travelled than another? Did the curve of the path look like it might actually form a loop? Did the path head in a direction that we thought might be the correct destination? We would ponder these questions and consult as a family before moving onward. So some sort of consensus was arrived at as we reached each intersection.

As I stumbled through the maze following my family, lost in my own thoughts, I started to observe how we were making decisions as a team. At each intersection there was usually some sort of debate. Arguments were made for and against different options. The group would informally arrive at a decision. We had the advantage of multiple brains rather than just one, so you would expect some sort of multiplier effect from using those additional noggins. But it really didn’t feel that way.

Instead we were bouncing around the maze, wandering into loops and blind alleys, and as far as I could perceive, we were not much more successful than someone walking the maze and flipping a coin to decide which direction to go. It was quickly becoming apparent that our success rate was hard to discern from a completely random performance. In fact, at some point I joked that we should be using a 20 sided dice to determine our next move. Geek family.

As we came around a bend I saw another family just standing at an intersection expectantly looking down the path like they were waiting for something. The father came running into view from further down the path and I heard him say rather breathlessly, “There’s nothing down that way guys.” We moved on and I couldn’t help but wonder about that approach. That family was using an interesting strategy. They were obviously making an effort to collect some information about the maze before moving on. That seemed to be one level of effectiveness beyond what we were doing. They were trying to look ahead and gather some intelligence that they could use to help make a better decision about the direction to go in the maze.

We continued to ramble about, but it was soon apparent that the kids were starting to get tired. My wife indicated that it was time for us to bring the adventure to a close before we had a riot on our hands. Dad, stop being such a slacker, it’s time for you to make a few decisions! So that’s when I had an idea.

At the next intersection, I sent a child down each avenue with the instruction to continue until they come to another split in the path and then to report back to me. Off they went. I figured I had two children, so I could afford to lose one with this experiment and still call myself a parent.

At the first junction, the kids came back and one reported a dead end, and the other reported yet another junction. Well that made the decision easy, so off we went. At the next junction however, both kids reported the same thing – there was another junction, but no indication beyond that. So it appears that my look ahead strategy had it’s limitations. There was only so far we could see ahead in the maze using my one intersection strategy. So we flipped a coin and moved on.

At the next intersection, we had a choice between an intersection and an obvious milestone, so we continued toward the milestone. A few more choices like that and we found the end of the maze.

As we celebrated and headed back to the car, it occurred to me that wandering through a corn maze is not all that different from the way that we work on projects as teams.
A project has a lot in common with a corn maze. In principle we all know how they work, but the path from start to finish isn’t all that clear when you start (oh you may THINK it is clear, but let’s face it, there are a lot of unknowns). So you kick off your project and get started and before too long you have to make some decisions. All too often when we make decisions as teams, we do it on the spur of the moment, using only the information that is immediately in front of us. Just like me and the family in the corn maze. We are only using the information that is immediately at hand. Decisions are made quickly with a minimum of information. It’s little better than a coin toss. But there is an alternative.

We can be gathering information to help us make better decisions. There are various names for this kind of look ahead strategy, personally I’m thinking of “set based decision making.“ In set based decision making you explore multiple alternatives. You look down multiple paths, but you don’t go too far. You are gathering just enough information to help you make a good decision now before you proceed onward. Just like with the kids running forward reconnaissance in the maze. This is how you improve the information you use for decision making, and this is how you give yourself a chance to make better decisions.

You see, projects have many important decisions to be made. You bump into them daily. Go the right direction and you are increasing your project’s likelihood of success, go the wrong direction and the project is that much closer to failure. These are high stakes decisions with lots of money on the line. So using the corn maze escape strategy is a good one. A small qualification is probably in order here: The look ahead doesn’t give you a crystal ball or a guarantee of success.

The point is that we all might benefit from using a conscious strategy to acquire knowledge that can inform our decisions. It doesn’t have to be very much additional information in order for there to be a substantial benefit. So the next time you find yourself on a complex project where you have to make tough decisions, remember the corn maze. The strategy you choose can make your journey a whole lot easier.