Don’t Get Distracted by Your Plan

Wait a minute, I thought, as I looked up from the trail we had been hiking for several hours. Where are we?

I knew I was lost. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. I was leading a thirty-day wilderness expedition for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Which, in this case, meant there were eight 16- to 24-year-old students following me.

For most of an expedition, NOLS groups travel off trail. We use topographic maps that reflect the physical features of an area — mountains, streams, valleys, ridges — and we navigate through the wilderness by comparing what we see around us with what’s on the map.

Each morning we agree on our goal — where we plan to camp at the end of the day — and then choose a rough path through the wilderness. We know the general direction we’re moving and maintain our course by paying attention to the environment — keep that mountain to the left, that small river to the right, and that craggy peak in front.

Every once in a while there happens to be a trail that travels in the same direction we’re traveling so we follow it. It makes for easy walking.

But a dangerous thing happens when we follow a trail: we stop paying attention to the environment. Since the trail is so easy to follow, we allow our minds to wander and neglect to observe where we are.

Then we forge ahead, moving with speed and purpose, right to the point where we look up and realize, like I did that day, that the environment around us is no longer recognizable. Our focus blinded us.

This is not just a hiking thing.

In business and in life we set all kinds of goals — build a company, meet sales objectives, be a supportive manager — and then we define a strategy for achieving that goal. The goal is the destination; the strategy is our trail to get there.

Only sometimes we get so absorbed in the trail — in how we’re going to achieve the goal, in our method or process — that we lose sight of the destination, of where we were going in the first place. And we walk right by the opportunities that would have propelled us forward toward our planned destination.

Which is what happened to Sammy, a religious man, who was caught in his house during a flood. He climbed up to his roof and prayed, asking God to save him.

Sammy saw a wood plank in the water and let it float by. “God will rescue me,” he said to himself. After some time, a man came by in a boat and offered him a lift but Sammy declined. “God will rescue me,” he told the man. The water continued to rise; it was up to his neck when a helicopter flew overhead. Sammy waved it off saying “God will rescue me.” Finally, Sammy drowned.

Next thing he knew, Sammy was in heaven, where he was greeted by God. “Why didn’t you rescue me?” Sammy asked. “I tried!” God answered, “I sent a wood plank, I sent a boat, I sent a helicopter…”

OK, so it’s not a true story, but the point is still useful. Sammy was so committed to his strategy of God saving him that he missed the rescue.

I started my company over 12 years ago with a 50-page business plan. It was a very useful tool — it kept me focused, helped me avoid mistakes, enabled me to settle on a growth strategy. But if you look at my company today, it looks nothing like that plan.

Because the economy changed, I changed, my clients changed, and the opportunities changed. If I had stuck to my plan, I would have failed. It was by keeping my eye on the changing environment, and being willing to toss the plan and create a new one in sync with new realities that enabled me to grow my business.

I remember hearing a mother speak about how difficult it was for her to parent her autistic child. “I’m not the parent I planned to be,” she said. “I’m the parent I have to be.”

I’ve noticed the same thing about great managers. They might have a plan for how they want to manage. But they’re constantly shifting that plan based on the strengths and weaknesses of the people they’re managing.

Monitor and adjust. That’s the key to effective leadership, indoors or out.

On the trail, I stopped my group of students and admitted that I had gotten us lost. I explained how being too focused on the trail can easily lead us astray.

“Great,” answered a 16-year-old boy sarcastically, “so how do we get unlost?”

“You tell me.”

“Look at the map?” he suggested.

“And your surroundings!” I added.