Are You Seeing the Forest through the Trees?

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Probably one of my favourite things about growing up in Canada was summer camp: one full month of outdoor activities and getting close to nature. The highlight of the adventure was the canoe expedition. The camp’s duration was dictated by the age of the participants: 2 days and 1 night for the 6-year-olds and up to 20 days for the 16-year-olds. First, we were put into pairs, then we were off: paddling in the different lakes, setting up camp – the next day, more paddling. The slowly changing landscape in various shades of green, mixed with the peace and tranquillity of the lake and the steady rhythm of the paddling, was sometimes hypnotic and provided many daydreams. But it was not all fun and games. The “portage” – from the French word porter meaning to carry – was a nightmare: we had to carry not only all our gear and backpacks, but also the stupid canoe. The woods were infested with mosquitos, and with the canoe on your shoulders you couldn’t even swat them away. It was enough to drive you mad – and a real test of character. But we went through it – and by the third day of not washing with soap the mosquitos had stopped bothering us.

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The trail was often poorly marked, but after making a few unnecessary detours in the mosquito-infested woods I learnt very quickly how to read a map and use a compass, always looking for the shortest possible way through the woods or the best way to pick up the supposed trail. The interesting thing about a map is that it provides a “bird’s eye” view of the terrain, giving you information about what lies ahead of you – things that you may not be able to see at that moment in time. It gave us a view of the forest. Although we may not have been able to see the other lake, we started our portage, confident that it lay about 800 m to the west, just beyond the hill. We took our bearings with the compass, picked a point in the distance and started walking. Once we had reached that point, we repeated the process until we had reached our destination – the other lake. It’s easy to see the parallels to classic management theory:

1)    Vision:            Reaching our camp site safe and sound

2)    Mission:          Getting there one hour before nightfall

3)    Milestones:

  1. Paddle across the lake to where the trail starts
  2. Portage through the mosquito-infested wood
  3. Paddle to camp site
  4. Set up camp

But, as you can imagine, management theory often differs from reality. So, what is the problem? The bloody canoe! You see, when you walk around wearing a canoe as a hat, you can’t see more than two metres in front of you. It makes it kind of hard to get your bearings and pick a point in the distance. In reality, as 12-year-olds, my partner and I were victims of our own size and youth. Only one person should carry the canoe; that way, you can tip it back and see where you are going. The two-man approach is just not a good option in the woods, but it seemed like our only option at the time – neither of us had the strength to carry the canoe alone. Needless to say, we struggled; we just could not see the forest through the trees. Although we had a map and we knew there was a lake a short walk away, our struggles with the canoe demanded all our attention and drained our energy.

So often in business, we see a similar picture. We all have some kind of canoe to deal with, something that impedes us from seeing the bigger picture by sucking up all of our attention, and, because we get distracted, we lose sight of the objective and the task at hand. In our example, the problem was obvious: the canoe. Although it took us a few frustrating trials, we did figure out a way to make the task easier for ourselves, in the end.

In a business situation, becoming aware of the issues and forces that are obstructing your view of the forest should be your top priority – only then can you deal with them. (That is, of course, if you have already defined where you want to go and what your objectives are.) In most companies, the real boss – the CEO – sits just too far from where the value is created. As commander in chief of the organisation, his role is – like it or not – to give purpose to the jobs of the employees. Failure to do so results in an uncommitted workforce – people just putting in their time for their pay cheque, without much concern for waste, quality or efficiency. Sure, you can invest in quality systems, define standards and measure against them – in an attempt to maintain a high standard of work – but if you can’t get your people committed to their work, you will never make it to the top. You give purpose to people’s jobs by, first of all, sharing a set of values and mores; after all, knowing what to expect from each other gives everyone a sense of security. Therefore, describe the conditions under which the company is operating; talk about the competitive landscape, the strategy and how everyone plays their part in its execution, but, more importantly, break down the task into small enough chunks so that progress can be measured. After all, it is in the day-to-day activities along the value chain where the vision gets realised. If you are not aware of what is obstructing you, then you have little chance of success.

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 18 August 2013

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