When The Path Is Unclear

This morning I was hiking in Coquetdale, in the Northumberland National Park.  Whilst we were hiking across open heather moorland, there was a footpath.  But you wouldn’t have known it at first glance.  For much of our route the heather had grown closed over the path – we couldn’t see our feet or the path. 

When the path is unclear, we rely on waymarks.

As we hiked, I noticed some lessons that have parallels in our business lives:

  • It doesn’t matter if the immediate path is unclear, as long as you can see a waymark ahead.  When we couldn’t see our feet or the path, we had to rely on two things:
    • The occasional white-topped posts bearing the footpath arrows to give us our bearings; and
    • Faith that the trail was solid below the heather, so that we could put our foot down below the heather, out of sight.

Often in business the immediate path before us is unclear, so we rely on targets or key events in our business calendar as waymarkers.  We can’t always see that the steps we take today will take us to the goal, but if we keep moving forward we do know we will get there

  • The road to the top is rarely straight.  We were climbing to a cairn high in a ridge, but the route curved and chinked, following ridges and avoiding burns (the boggy bits).  In business we set linear plans and then can find that life takes us through some chinks and turns before we get there.  Staff, customers, competitors and ourselves are all complex parts of a large ecosystem, and the result of their interactions rarely provides a straight route to the top.  And this is fine, provided we are following our waymarkers.
  • Look up occasionally.  It is easy to get so intent on placing our feet carefully, so focussed on the immediate and the near-term that we fail to check we’re still on track for our waymarker.  It pays to look up occasionally and make sure.  And of course, it pays to take in the view from time to time.  At work we need to take time out of our busy days or weeks to make sure our activity is still taking us where we want to go, and to monitor progress and celebrate successes.
  • Beware false trails.  With a gazillion sheep in Northumberland, it is easy to deviate from the footpath and find you are just following a sheep trail through the heather.  Or a clear line through the heather looks like the path, and turns out to be a stream or bog.  We need to be able to recognise what is really taking us to our goal, and which is either leading away, or will transpire to be uncomfortable or dangerous terrain.  What do false trails look like in your business?
  • You walk faster near a waymark.  As we passed each white-topped post (and there were many) I noticed how we seemed to be more motivated and faster-paced, whereas when the way was unclear between posts, or we couldn’t see the next post in the distance, our progress was slower and more uncertain.  In business we need to make sure we, and our teams, have sufficient clear waymarks, at appropriate frequencies, to maintain momentum.  This is why I am a fan of daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly goals and targets.  It builds momentum.
  • Take small steps if the path is unclear.  When the heather was covering the trail, we couldn’t stride out like we could on the grassland.  We couldn’t be sure of a safe footing, and sometimes the bearing was unclear.  So we took sensible, smaller steps that kept us moving toward our goal, but didn’t place us in danger.  When the path is unclear in your business, what small steps will keep you moving forward, without undue risk?
  • Some things are harder when you’re small.  I noticed that it was hard work wading through the heather for miles at a time – with your shins are being continuously whacked.  When I commented on this to Mrs B I received some direct feedback that it is even harder when the heather is whacking your thighs.  We may each face the same challenges at work, but their impact will vary depending on our skills and attributes.  As leaders, we need to be open to the challenges our team is actually facing, and help them deal with them on their terms, not ours.  We may not fear presenting in public, or analysing a page of numbers, but a colleague might.
  • Don’t patronise.  I can tell you now that in the interests of team cohesion and a positive working environment, it isn’t wise to patronise an intelligent, independent woman just because she is a foot shorter than you…
  • Don’t multi-task.  Either keep on hiking to maintain progress, or stop to take notes on your phone for a blog that has just occurred to you.  Don’t try the two at the same time.  That’s how you step in a boggy bit and end up with a boot covered in mud.  At least I hope it was mud, there were a lot of sheep on that hill…

We reached our first objective and were rewarded with stunning views for miles in all directions.  We then achieved the secondary goal, and were rewarded with a pint of quality bitter, brewed on-site in a village pub.  I hope you can find a way to keep moving forward when your path is unclear, and will enjoy similar rewards when you reach your objective.

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