Orienteering through Organizational Change


It occurred to me the other day that managing organizational change is like orienteering in the back  country.

Orienteering is a how hikers go from one place to another using a compass and a topographical map.

The map is like a vision for where we want to be. The compass serves as all those conceptual connections like a mission, values and a vision that keeps us oriented in going in the right direction.

Orienteering in the back country is simple, yet requires focused concentration. It allows you to leave the trail, chart your own course, and arrive at your destination. It is quite likely that you know where you are going, but do not know what lies between you and your destination. Particularly, if you are off the trail, you need to pay careful attention to the map and compass in order not to get off track.

Here's how to do it. Identify your destination on the map and then orient the map to the north. There is true north and there is magnetic north. The difference is called declination. It is the number of degrees difference between the two. What this means is that you hold the map in front of you, and turn it until the map until it is facing north according to the compass reading. Identify where you are on the map, and turn until you are facing the direction of your destination. Make sure the map is oriented north. You may be facing south, or southwest.  This will be the direction that you walk.

You look out from the map and find an object that stands along the line that extends to your destination. You walk to it. You look for another object along the path, check your compass and your map, and you proceed forward. You continue to do this until you reach your destination.

Look at this topo map section that I've posted here. This is the topo section covering the ridge line in the banner photo above and the picture in this post. Banner image left is at the top of the map, the foreground of the other picture is off the map at the top. The saddle is Farlow Gap, followed by Sassafrass Knob and then Pilot Mountain, which is in the center of the map image. Pilot Mtn Sassafrass Knob topo

The trail outlined here is the Art Loeb trail. For illustration purposes, let's say you wanted to go directly west (to the left) from Deep Gap to the intersection of Bear Branch and FS Rd140A, you'd need a map and compass to do so, It may look like a short distance, but it is straight down.The closer the elevation lines the steeper the grade. In order to reach your destination, you'd need to make many side turns in order to arrive where you want to be.  To do so requires staying oriented to the north and being clear at all times where you are in relation to where you want to be.

I see this as a great way to understand how leaders manage organizational change.   We need to see that the path we take from where we stand to our envisioned destination is largely unknown. Other people may have gone this way before, and left us a trail to follow. However, we still may not know what obstacles have occurred in the intervening period. It is therefore important that we have a plan that allows for change. This plan allows for detours and side trips in order to find the advantage we need to get where we are going.

My friend Tom Morris talks about how we proceed in towards goals like we are hiking up a mountain. We get to the top and realize that the peak we are on, which required so much effort is really just a little knoll. Out in the distance is a higher peak.  In order to get there, we must go down in order to go up. We must go down to learn new things, jettison certain practices, in order to be prepared to climb to a higher destination.

This scenario played out here on a topo map is a kin to what Lewis & Clark experienced in the their expedition two hundred years ago. Their first year on the trail was up the Missouri River to the Mandan villages.They follow a path known by European trappers. From that point to the coast of the Oregon, they were off the map. Each day they had to make decisions about where they were. The critical juncture came at the Marias Confluence. Here they had to decide which river led them to their destination.  They chose correctly, and within days came another confluence of rivers at Three Forks. It was only on their return that they learned that of a short cut west of Great Falls that would have saved them several weeks.

Managing change, moving into the future along an unknown path, requires us to remain open to what is before us. We constantly must orient ourselves to what we see before us. And make our best decisions about what we must do. For this reason, it is important that we are clear on our desired destination, that our team is unifying around a set of values that will carry through hard times, and that we are passionate about the outcome so that the hardships are worth the investment.

It is one thing to know your destination. It is another to know how to get there each step fo the way. What orienteering has taught me is that we take a step at a time, staying focused on our destination, and by patience and clear thought, we'll figure out how to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

This is what I do everyday with my clients, and myself.