Metaphors can be powerful. “She has a heart of gold.” “All the world’s a stage.” We hear a good one and like magic an image or idea from an entirely different zone can suddenly shed new light on a challenge or opportunity we face in our own zone that has us stuck. But every now and then a metaphor goes a powerful step better, providing the very roadmap we need to progress forward. Such is the case with land navigation and the important lessons it can teach us about finding our way in an uncertain world, business or otherwise.
Today’s work environment is more volatile and complex than at any time in modern history, not because uncertainty hasn’t existed in the past, but because past forms were largely episodic. Uncertainty came, we figured out a way to deal with it, then returned to a relatively stable status quo. By stark contrast, today’s uncertainties are ongoing, interweaving, and perpetual.
Because they are, we find ourselves repeatedly asked to do the very thing that defines land navigation: to find, forge, and follow a route through unfamiliar territory. While land navigation can at times involve a lot of highly sophisticated technology, in the end, experts say, it boils down to some pretty simple things – things, you’ll be happy to know we humans are innately capable of doing, even if we are out of practice in actually doing them.
Better news still, no matter who you are, what level of leadership you occupy, or where you ply your trade, within those fundamentals, three things stand out and can substantially raise your odds of navigating effectively.
- Pull a “Crazy Ivan.”
Lost in uncertainty, we often conclude that we can’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, we lose our perspective and our place. Vermont Game Warden Mark Schichtle’s understands this better than most. A key part of his job is literally to help people find their way in the woods. Odds are right now you’re thinking Schichtle teaches people how to use a compass or map. He does, but only after he teaches them to do a “Crazy Ivan.” It’s a reference to a line from the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October. In the film, the heroes are trying to track a Soviet sub, and what turns out to be the key identifying feature of that sub is its habit of occasionally and turning around to see if anyone is following them. In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Schichtle says it’s also a good habit for not losing your way – to periodically pause, not only to take in where you are, but also to take a reflective view backwards at the path you’re on. Why? Well, in a literal sense you’d be taking in the view you’ll be seeing on the way back. But by pausing to look back, you are also, in total, taking in a broader more informed view of your surroundings, including reminding yourself of why you’re journeying in the first place and what you’re learning as you go. As leaders and organizations try to recover from the chaos of Covid, there’s high incentive to just get going and to keep moving. But uncertainty requires constant recalculation and recalibration. A clear sense of where you’ve been and why you’re journeying can make those recalculations and recalibrations far more efficient and effective.
- Put Tools in Their Place.
Maps and compasses are just the beginning of the tools we use to give us direction and gain advantage, especially in business. Without question, tools are important. The problem is we most often give tools higher priority and purpose than they deserve. Though their real purpose is to help us sort and respond to the conditions in which we’re operating at any point in time, tools yield an almost irresistible yet false sense of security. In final form for example, operating plans offer us not just direction, but promise precise steps on a path to specific outcomes and rewards. Here’s the catch we forget: such plans are predictions, not promises. Tools support. It’s the environment that leads. Should you carry some sort of map and compass in an uncertain landscape? Without a doubt. But put those tools in their proper place of importance if you want to up their relevance and impact.
- Do You.
When looking at other species – from bats that find their way in the dark, to wildebeests that migrate hundreds of miles annually to the same watering holes and breeding grounds – it’s hard not to be impressed with their seemingly superior built-in navigation systems. But scientists say we humans have strong navigation and orientation skills too. We just tend to downplay them to the point that we fail to fully engage or practice using them. When it comes to navigating uncertainty, those skills include our factory-issued capacities for both creativity and leadership. We are built to navigate uncertainty, deal with constraints, and repeatedly find new and more valuable ways forward. Leaning into those skills, no matter what our job description might say, and doing so habitually, makes you more adept at adaptation to a changing landscape. But here’s the real gem insight: Individuals naturally differ in where their strengths lie. Some of us are exceptional map readers and compass calculators. Others have a knack for reading the patterns in the surrounding world. It’s the allowance for that range of individual strengths that makes groups of humans so successful over time – a lesson emphatically reinforced in the field by organizational cultures that understand and allow this and repeatedly adapt and thrive as conditions change.
In an increasingly uncertain landscape showing no signs of waning, learning how to navigate as a mindset, not just a now and then undertaking, must become a collective priority for leaders and their teams.
Written by Larry Robertson.
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