Lessons in Hiking

Guddi Singh


Hikes are great because they give perspective. But not before the excited chatter of the launch gives way to confusion and anxiety when you lose your way, not to mention the sheer slog of trudging up hillsides that were never your idea to climb in the first place. When you crest the summit and take in the view you feel satisfied and rewarded, all the hard work melts away. But the peak is not the destination. All too soon you are back down the slippery slopes into the valleys, where things become unclear again. I learned this advice in relation to my PhD. The experience I describe has become somewhat facetiously termed the "The Valley of Shit". It is that period of your PhD when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. You spend your time labouring and sliding around in the muddy and muddled lowlands wondering what on earth your role on the planet is, only to - every now and then - get a glimpse of the big picture. This relief happens just often enough to keep you hammering away at an unrelenting, arduous endeavour that in any other context would be considered madness. This advice for PhDs applies equally well to change projects. Those far more experienced than me well understand the peaks and literal pits that any complex change involves. It's hard, but you must hold firm. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough.

Here are three lessons for your next hike:

1) The map is not the territory (the what)

“The map is not the territory” is a phrase coined by the Polish American philosopher and engineer Alfred Korzybski. He used it to convey the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself. According to Korzybski, models stand to represent things, but they are not identical to those things. We need models, maps, and tools; they are critical for careful analysis, forecasting and planning. The thing is people get really wedded to their maps - even when their maps don't match the maps of the others in the group. As D. H. Lawrence said, “The map appears to us more real than the land" Our map, or mental model, isn't what it describes, it's simply a way we choose to interpret a certain set of information. Moreover, maps only reveal a limited set of possibilities. If we use a map for long enough, we lose sight of the fact the entire journey was based on a plan someone else had for us. We stop questioning it at all.

2) Use a compass instead (the how)

Srinivas Rao says, “For those of us who can't see a path, we have no choice but to pave our own.” As a leader, team members often look to you for exact answers, waiting to be told exactly what to do, afraid of doing things on their own without permission. They do not know where to go and want you to hand them a map showing exactly which route to take. But there are rarely exact answers, and even if there were, this doesn't exactly empower your team. Rather - like so much of what we do in the didactic and hierarchical of clinical healthcare - it merely fosters dependency. The truth is, when you are innovating, nobody knows exactly what to do next: the end goal is still being developed or might even change throughout the journey. As a leader, then, ditch the map. Instead, learn how to give your team a compass - a set of values which help to show which general direction to venture in, along with permission to go there. Trusting the compass is a habit, a practice, and a commitment. The first time you trust it and it leads you somewhere unexpected and amazing, you’ll find the courage to trust it again. You’ll let it carry you towards another edge worth exploring. The more you do it, the more it will become your new normal, and eventually you’ll trust the compass more than the map. When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. More of than not, this crisis comes from within.

3) Choose your team with discernment (the who)

Much of what is written in the business world focuses on individual creativity and performance. But this does nothing to explain group creativity or innovation. American psychologist, Keith Sawyer, recognized the problem and began to search for an alternative to the individual approach. In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Sawyer writes: "The more I observed creativity in action the more I realized that the most radical breakthroughs—including television, the airplane, e-mail, and even the board game Monopoly—emerged from a collaborative web that can’t be contained within any one company’s walls" Who you go hiking with is critical. Speed, stamina, skill - what does each person bring, and how might they hold you back? It's not enough to have one or two star players, because when the going gets tough, it's your weakest members, not your strongest, that dictate your

pace. Just so with change projects. Collaborators often reflect dissimilar - if not downright contradictory - cultures and approaches to the same problems. We know diversity is good; Matthew Syed has argued that only diverse groups have the "collective intelligence"; you need to solve complex problems. But what if you share neither the same map, nor the same compass? If your what and how are grossly misaligned, every step on your hike will require Herculean efforts. Disagreement is not dangerous, but distrust and disillusionment from sustained conflict are. You may finally decide that you can't or won't compromise on certain fundamental elements of your project. On a hike, you would part graciously from your group, thanking them for their company to this point but acknowledging that all parties are better served by being free to pursue their own goals in their own way from here on. You can't hold people hostage to your own dreams. And conversely, don't let yourself be hijacked on a journey you have no interest in taking.

All hikes must eventually come to an end, but for those like me who are still navigating their "messy middle" – entrepreneur and author Scott Belsky's name for the hardest and most crucial part of any bold project or new venture - don't lose sight of your what, how and who. Not for bagging the peak, but so that you can deliver on your why; for giving your work ease, joy and meaning - the true heights we should all be aiming for.