Path Finding and Way Finding

Strategic initiatives have to
find a path through
 the organizational terrain.

It is common to hear people say in the early definition stage, “Wow, this strategic initiative is complex. Where do we start? I’m overwhelmed!” My advice is to use the path finding technique.

This article builds upon my article, Five Rules for Managing Complex Strategic Initiatives. (Refresher: the five rules are manage starting conditions, enlarge the strategic discussions, dissent strengthens the strategy, increase learning with rapid experimentation, and monitor for emergence.)

Path finding is a simple – yet powerful – approach that involves three distinct skills: pattern searching, sense-making, and nudging:

  • Pattern Searching - (also known as pattern recognition) is the competency of discovering important regularities. (A pattern is an arrangement of facts implying some sort of relationship between them).  For strategic initiative leaders, patterns are found in the strategic context and in the conversations that stakeholders have about the goals and methods of the strategic initiative.
  • Sense-making is the ability to interpret the patterns so that the interpretation forms a story that is relevant to the stakeholder. The result is the ability to gain alignment and commitment in areas that have complexity, ambiguity, or high uncertainty.
  • Nudging is a deliberate incremental action that advances the strategic initiative towards its goal.  It involves decisions and incremental actions.

Path finding and way finding are both concepts that have to do with navigating through natural and built environments. I’m not inventing anything new here; just re-conceptualizing some common-sense ideas into useful leadership practices.

Path Finding Explained with a Simple Analogy

Picture yourself in a field facing a dense forest. You have a simple goal: to find a path that allows you to pass through the forest. (You’ll get additional richness in this analogy if you visualize your team standing with you.) Your initial reaction is that the tree line and scrub has formed an impenetrable wall, behind which are many unknowns. Using the skills of path finding, you find a strategic spot to enter. Once inside the forest, you move towards your goal occasionally making detours.

The Skill of Managing Starting Conditions

First, there is a meta-pattern to consider: are you just starting your journey (your strategic initiative) or is it underway?

The knack of managing starting conditions is to be able to judge the enormity of the endeavor and have the right quality and quantity of resources.  In the cross-the-forest analogy, you would want to make sure that you have sufficient provisions and gear for the trip.  You would consider hiring a guide to help with the orientation and the work.

Obviously, there are a lot of risks to consider. One practical tool for managing starting conditions is to apply the Compact Approach, asking, “What are the mistakes I must not make?” One mistake might be to rely on a map given to you by someone who does not really know the terrain. (Fact: the famous Donner Party disaster in 1846 was partly due to their reliance on an invalid map and rumored shortcut, the “Hastings Cutoff.”)

Comment – For many, a “project methodology” might be considered a map or a blazed trail to get to the end point.  However, the “terrain” of a simple project differs considerably a strategic initiative.  A strategic initiative is often terra incognita.  A rigid project management approach intended for a deployment project might not work well. (See my charter article).

 The Skill of Pattern Searching

Continuing the forest-crossing analogy, assume you are standing outside the forest with your guide. You look for any evidence of a break in the tree line.  You look at the height of the trees. You assess their relationship to landforms like mountains, canyon walls, or water. What are the patterns you observe?

You hope to get off to a good start, and need to recover quickly if you make a poor initial decision about the place to enter the forest (Rule 1 from my complexity article). If you have a team, you should ask for their input to help recognize patterns (Rule 2) and encourage dissent (Rule 3). Here you are monitoring for emergence (Rule 5) .

The Skill of Sense Making

Next, taking everything into consideration, you ask yourself, “What do all of these patterns tell me?”  Perhaps, the collective pattern shows that it is more sensible to wade up a stream rather than hack through the underbrush.

Perhaps the patterns provide evidence of someone else’s passage. If someone has gone this way before, is there something useful to learn?

Here you continue to integrate experimenting and monitoring for emergence. You can use the team’s input to enlarge the perspective and improve decision-making quality. This is a good time to encourage dissent (Rule 3) to see if your story is the best fit for what is facing you.

One of my favorite techniques for working with teams is to make short observations and provocations, and then ask this question,

 “Does that make sense?”

The Skill of Nudging

Finally, you make more deliberate attempt to penetrate the forest.  You select a suitable place to enter and take a few steps inside, breaking through the tree-line scrub. You stop and feel the ground under your feet. This is nudging.

Are there any apparent risks?  What does your intuition tell you?

Just stomping a little on the ground is an experiment that tells you the potential firmness of the footing.  Are you ready to commit to the next step?  How about the team?

You continue nudging forward, learning as you go (Rule 4). You find it is now less tangled, but darker. You iterate through process of learning, sense making and nudging.  You might face tangles of small and large trees, fallen trees, rocks, and so forth. You move forward and back track occasionally.

You continue to notice new patterns and adapt to them.

With persistence, you find your way through the forest to meet your goal.

Path Finding for a Strategic Initiative

This path finding approach fits well to the case examples described in my earlier articles.  For example,

  • Pattern Searching – Domino’s found the repeated consumer complaint of “your crust tastes like cardboard” formed a pattern. Google used many analytics trends in news gathering and news papers to help it understand the strategic terrain for its “save the news” strategic initiative. Wal-Mart saw a pattern in the public’s perception of it that caused it to take on the challenge of “making money by doing the right thing.” Note that usually it is a collection of patterns that become a stimulus for a strategic initiative.
  • Sense Making – The heritage story is a story that people use to help reconcile strategic goals with the company’s history.  You can find evidence in Google, Domino’s and Wal-Mart examples that showed how the strategic initiative – involving new business models – was actually a continuation of the principles that made for the company’s initial success.
  • Nudging – Domino’s and Google’s nudges included hiring new employees, and the role of a consultant was essential to making progress for Wal-Mart. CEOs at both Google and Wal-Mart went public with a “proximate objective” announcing their intentions, resulting in incentives to for stakeholders to change behaviors. (Richard Rumelt defines a proximate objective as a target that is feasible for the organization to meet.  Having a proximate objective helps to focus attention and resources.)

Patience! The Path is Revealed, not the Trail is Blazed

In complex environments, we often can not understand or predict the results and actions of others.  In these environments, the traditional project-management mindset of “plan your work and work your plan” is inadequate.

Don’t make the mistake of plunging and forcing others to bend to your will. On the other hand, you can’t stay in study mode too long.  Work incrementally to build confidence and credibility.

In prior articles, I have discussed ambiguity and strategic thinking.  Path finding is a helpful tool in that pattern searching and sense making allows you to recognize ambiguity and nudging can allow you to make low risk & reversible commitments. Path finding is a practical, memorable, and effective tool for strategic initiative leaders.

Readers! This article is my path-finding attempt for a book on Strategic Initiative Leadership. Is my nudge effective? Should I dig in deeper with more explanation, methods, and examples? Your comments (and your dissent) are appreciated.

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About Greg Githens

Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. a.k.a., The Strategic Thinking Coach. I'm a hands-on strategy & execution consultant with experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. I'm available for extended or short-term engagements. For an introduction to pragmatic tools that turns vision into results, attend my popular seminar, "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)."
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5 Responses to Path Finding and Way Finding

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