Subscribe via RSS Feed

What Taking-a-Hike Can Teach Us About Business

Hiking in autumn forestSomething Special…

This week I have something special for you. A guest post from one of my best friends. Dave Katauskas regularly shares insights that  make a huge impact on a team’s performance and success.  The story below has changed how he and I make choices within our daily work.

So, without further ado, I hope you enjoy the following blog post as much as I did.

Have I got a story for you!

Recently, my friend, we’ll call him “Bob”, and I decided to hike on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. This was in preparation for our bucket-list-goal of walking a portion of the Appalachian Trail.  We knew any hike would be a challenge merely because we were non-active desk jockeys, 50+ pounds overweight and past middle-aged.  If you’ve ever seen the “before and after” photos in most health diets, we would be in the “before” picture.  I believe that sums it up.  Yet, we were determined and eager to get started.

Let’s get going!

On the first day of our 2-day hike, we set out on the Ice Age Trail to explore the wilderness and just enjoy ourselves.  We saw many great sights and regularly rested with food and water from our backpacks.  It was a great day with perfect weather.  All of the elements indicated that this day would run flawlessly.  In an eerie sort of way, this was strangely similar to the optimism and energy we have when starting a new and exciting project.

Knowing that this first leg of the hike was only a day hike, at some point in our journey we would need to turn around and track back to our car.  The morning went well. We felt strong, full of energy, sharing a great time on a beautiful day. The morning was going quickly and before we knew it, we reached the five mile mark. It was just after lunch that we started to think that turning back at this point would be smart. The second half of the hike would probably go slower.

After looking at the map, there was a ridge ahead that would provide some interesting views and a shelter.  Feeling physically able and still eager, I suggested that we squeeze in a few more miles before turning back.  Bob had a gut feeling that we needed to turn back because we may be reaching our physical limits.  He’s older and more out of shape. Of course, he was also being risk adverse. We all have a Bob on our project!

We clearly weren’t in agreement, so we discussed it a bit.  But without the definitive proof that we were actually reaching our limit, we decided to press on. His version of this story is that I convinced him to press on. We agreed to turn back at mile seven.

Around mile six, the path changed to a steep incline. I mean a painful, slow, incline.  But we made it to the top and to mile seven.  We felt great at arriving at the top of the ridge and rested on the trail near the tall grass.  Unfortunately, the view wasn’t as spectacular as we had imagined.  In fact, there was no view at all except for tall brush and grass.  But we still felt great at making it to mile seven!

So we took a break and decided that it was time to turn back.  The first seven miles were great so the next seven should be equally great…right?  As you’ll read later, we were oblivious to the fact that we were just short from the real “point of no return”.

It’s really not that much farther…

Well, about two miles into the return trek, we realized that we were out of water.  In addition to that, our legs and feet were starting to become very fatigued and sore.  But press on we did, not that we really had an option.  So, another two miles later (that’s 11 miles total for the geeks doing the math…like I just did) we were now becoming worn out. The storm clouds started rolling in, the wind was picking up and our flawless day was no longer looking so flawless.  We now had as additional sense of urgency to stay out of the impending storm.  Yet, we still had about three miles to go.  We saw the coming gloom, we still had plenty of trails in front of us and we were in pain. Talk about a “Death March”! (Have you ever experienced a software project similar to this?  Doesn’t this really sound like the beginning of a death march?)

Houston, we have a problem

The next mile became a struggle as our bodies were not actually equipped to deal with the demands which we had placed upon them.  This next mile was truly indicative of what the final two miles had in store of us.  Our legs started cramping, each step was actually painful and we were thirsty.  We limped along, well aware of each and every step. We genuinely weren’t sure if we would make it back to the car without some assistance.  (How many times have we committed to more than we can successfully handle?  Or actually know what we are really committing to?  On the plus side, we did know that were very close to needing to ask for help.)

And then it happened…

It became apparent to us that our short term view of what we thought was feasible became a decision that ultimately created pain, anxiety and the possibility of failure.  To add insult to injury, it started raining. (The “death march” continues)

After a long while, we finally reached our destination and found a covered bench.  We sat for a few minutes, then headed toward the car; a distant 12 feet away.  Limping and cramping is what I remember mostly.  After what seemed like an eternity, we walked from the bench to the car.  Now we just needed to get in.  We somehow managed to hold back the man-tears. Well, at least I did!

The residual evidence was apparent by our pampered and ginger walking around the office over several days.  A trip we’ll never forget!  (I’ve certainly been on projects where we limped across the finish line). Yes, pain is certainly one of the best teachers.

How we changed our views

A few weeks after our hiking experience, we were able to reflect again upon our journey and we noticed similarities around how making decisions for short term goals, or decisions based on lack of insight, can have significant effects on long term outcomes.  The decision to continue after mile five was clearly a bad decision.  We talked about the moment, that specific choice, which led us to continue on.

Then I thought about all of the bad decisions that I’ve witnessed and made on project work. But instead of the conversations centering on making a bad decision, we would state that it was just poorly executed. We would never challenge our decision approach or conclusion.  For this hike, our execution was fine; the decision was bad.

We then started discussing some of the decisions that we’ve personally made in directing business objectives and how some of those decisions created pain for ourselves and others.  And, in some cases, it established additional barriers for corrective action.

Our take away…

So, when making business decisions today, I now ask “how can we prevent this from becoming our 14 mile death march?” and “are we just kidding ourselves?”  I was actually able to put this into practice one day when our leadership group was discussing strategic staffing.

We knew that a decision to handle a short-term, non-bulls-eye opportunity would certainly hurt our capability to engage in an on-target opportunity in the future.  So, we had good discussions around that topic and looked at the varied perspectives with our eyes wide open.  We stuck with the strategic goals in spite of a small immediate win.  And since then, we’ve been able to apply that same concept to other growth challenges.

In addition to all of that, Bob and I have since hiked again.  This time, it included a change in our behavior, thinking and knowing our real capabilities.  It was a more pleasant experience.

So next time you have a tough choice and everyone is debating an approach, consider you may be at mile five of your hike, and sometimes, it’s better not to push the limits … because you’ll feel the pain for quite some time afterwards!

Tags: , ,

Category: For Practitioners

  • Bob

    Based on this, Dave and I may actually ask each other ‘are we at the 5 mile marker’? When we do this, we are really asking: is this one of those choices where we are fooling ourselves and being too optimistic?

    It helps ground our decisions.