The Pathfinder: Reaching Your Organization’s Goal

Imagine that there are three group of people going out for a hike. Within each group of people, we have a goal of everyone reaching a picnic table at the end of the hike (and no one can eat until everyone has arrived). One of the people in each group has a map and a compass, knows how to use them, and will be directing the group on where they need to be going (we’ll call that person “the Pathfinder”). Everyone else is just along for the hike and the picnic.

The Pathfinder in each group is given a specific set of instructions on how they are going to direct everyone else.

Group 1: Observe, Plan, Walk

  1. Stand on top of the large rock at the beginning of the hiking trail.
  2. Once you have a clear view of the area, plot a course in one hundred foot increments, with your map and compass.
  3. Using any means necessary (pencil and paper, verbal communication, etc), describe the direction that the group is supposed to be walking. Give an updated direction to walk every one hundred feet, enduring the group can go around any obstacles such as large rocks, impassable tree groupings, and small creeks.
  4. Once you have plotted the correct course, store the compass and map in your backpack with the understanding that you are not allowed to use them again, until you have reached the picnic area.
  5. Have the entire group read the instructions, then set out on your hike.
  6. You are only allowed to check that everyone is on course by re-reading the instructions that you wrote down, every 100 feet – when the team needs to change direction to avoid an obstacle.
  7. Once your group has reached the picnic table, record the time that it took for the hike to be completed by everyone – yourself included.

Group 2: Observe, Plan, Walk, Start Over, Verify; Repeat;

  1. Stand on top of the large rock at the beginning of the hiking trail.
  2. Once you have a clear view of the area, plot a course of one hundred feet using your map and compass.
  3. Using any means necessary (pencil and paper, verbal communication, etc), describe the direction that the group is supposed to be walking for the next one hundred feet, ensuring everyone in the group understands the directions.
  4. Place your compass and map on the rock, then hop down from the rock. Re-join your group and lead them in the right direction for one hundred feet
  5. Tie one end of a rope to a tree or post at the beginning of the one hundred foot walk.
  6. Travel the one hundred foot distance with your team, ensuring that they end up in the correct location.
  7. At the end of the one hundred foot walk, have the group stop where they are.
  8. Tie the other end of the rope to a tree or post at the end of the one hundred foot walk.
  9. Have you and your group observe the new surroundings and take note of any obstacles that were note previously seen, and offer suggestions on where to go next.
  10. With the help of the ropes to guide you, walk back to the rock at the beginning of the trails, by yourself, and climb back on to it.
  11. Plot the next one hundred foot leg of the journey from where the group currently is, using your map and compass.
  12. Repeat this process from step 3 through 11, until your entire group has reached the picnic area.
  13. Once your group has reached the picnic table, record the time that it took for the hike to be completed by everyone – yourself included.

Group 3: Observe, Plan, Walk, Verify; Repeat;

  1. Stand on top of the large rock at the beginning of the hiking trail.
  2. Once you have a clear view of the area and general understanding of how to get where you are going, plot a course of one hundred feet using your map and compass.
  3. Using any means necessary (pencil and paper, verbal communication, etc), describe the direction that the group is supposed to be walking for the next one hundred feet.
  4. Place your compass and map in your backpack, then join your group.
  5. Let the group know where they are heading (the end goal) and where they need to be in the next one hundred feet, ensuring everyone in the group understands the directions that you outlined.
  6. Tie one end of a rope to a tree or post at the beginning of the one hundred foot walk.
  7. Lead the group in the right direction for one hundred feet, ensuring that everyone is able to safely navigate any obstacles.
  8. Verify that that your group has stopped in the correct location, by using your map and compass and any other landmarks or means needed.
  9. Tie the other end of the rope to a tree or post at the end of the one hundred foot walk.
  10. Have you and your group observe the new surroundings and take note of any obstacles that were note previously seen, and offer suggestions on where to go next.
  11. Repeat this process from step 3 through 10, until your entire group has reached the picnic area.
  12. Once your group has reached the picnic table, record the time that it took for the hike to be completed by everyone – yourself included.

Predictions on Outcome?

  • Which group do you think will make it to the picnic site first?
  • Which group do you think will be the most happy with the way the group was organized and run?
  • Which group of people do you think would be most likely to do the same process on another hike?

Observations of the Groups

Group 1 didn’t get to the picnic site very fast and wasn’t very happy about the experience. While everyone in the group was standing around waiting, the Pathfinder was sitting on top of a rock, writing things down in a notebook, trying to describe – from a very high level, where people were supposed to be walking. When the Pathfinder finally came down from the rock – possibly an hour or more after he climbed up there – the initial directions were good and people could start finding their way. As time went on, though, the detail of where they should be going became more and more unclear, because the Pathfinder could not nee the actual pathways below the tree tops and behind the large rocks. This caused Group 1 to constantly stumble and struggle, creating a situation where the team had to find paths around obstacles that they couldn’t previously see. Every now and then, they got lost because the description of the landmark was insufficient from the distance that it was recorded. They eventually got to the picnic site – well after everyone was hungry and tired. In the end, no one was happy with the experience and just wanted to go home.

Group 2 had an easier time finding their way. Since the Pathfinder and the group were able to see all of the obstacles within one hundred feet, the directions that the Pathfinder described was much more enjoyable. No one stumbled over anything or got lost. But it was a difficult journey, at times. The group had to veer off the original course many time, in order to avoid some previously unknown obstacles. In the end, the Pathfinder did a great job of keeping everyone focused on the goal – the picnic table and food. The problem, though, is that the group took forever to get to the picnic area. At first, having the Pathfinder re-check the direction they were heading was great. Everyone knew that he was keeping the group on target. However, every time the group reached their next stopping point, the Pathfinder would gather information about the next hundred feet, across a wide arc since he didn’t know which direction to go next, with great certainty. Only then could he travel all the way back to the original rock to verify that everyone was on the right path, heading toward the picnic table. After a few iterations of hiking, the process of verifying the course and location took more time than the process of hiking. The Pathfinder was simply repeating the same hike over and over again, to verify that they were on the original path laid out. No one in this group was disappointed in the path that they took to get to the picnic table, but no one appreciated the standing around and waiting for hours on end – waiting for the Pathfinder to get the next one hundred feet plotted. When they finally reached the picnic table, group 2 was full of hungry, grumpy people who just wanted to go home.

Group 3 got to the picnic site in record time. It was a difficult journey, at times – the group had to veer off the original course many time, in order to avoid some previously unknown obstacles. In the end, the Pathfinder did a great job of keeping everyone focused on the goal – the picnic table and food. With the ability to see all of the obstacles in the surrounding area, and the ability for the group to make decisions that would get them around obstacles while still making progress toward the picnic table, the group was successful in getting to the picnic table before lunchtime. Everyone on the group loved the trip and appreciated the ability have input in how they got to the picnic table. As long as the direction that they headed for the next one hundred feet did not cause a serious delay in reaching the picnic table, or was justifiable by avoid an obstacle, all input was considered before setting the new direction. Several of the people in group 3 decided that the would take a few more hours and head off into the next set of hiking trails, trying to reach another picnic table before dinner time. Other decided to bring their family out to the trail the next day, and re-walk the well defined path (noted by the ropes tied to the starting and ending points of each leg of the journey). Overall, everyone in group 3 enjoyed the experience.

The Real World

Now imagine that the Pathfinder is represented by some aspect of your organization. It may be the company or project leadership; it may be the customer; it may be an individual person or group of people within a project team. Your Pathfinder may not be a person or other sentient being, though. Perhaps its the Methodology (capital M, as defined in Peopleware) or political environment in your company.

Which Pathfinder(s) do you have in your company? Which Pathfinder would you rather work with? More importantly – if you are not working for / with the Pathfinder that you want, what steps are you taking to correct that? Be a catalyst for change – appropriately and professionally.

Continuously improve – always within the context of the goal.


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About Derick Bailey

Derick Bailey is an entrepreneur, problem solver (and creator? :P ), software developer, screecaster, writer, blogger, speaker and technology leader in central Texas (north of Austin). He runs SignalLeaf.com - the amazingly awesome podcast audio hosting service that everyone should be using, and WatchMeCode.net where he throws down the JavaScript gauntlets to get you up to speed. He has been a professional software developer since the late 90's, and has been writing code since the late 80's. Find me on twitter: @derickbailey, @mutedsolutions, @backbonejsclass Find me on the web: SignalLeaf, WatchMeCode, Kendo UI blog, MarionetteJS, My Github profile, On Google+.
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  • Evelyn

    This is the sort of story that might be better told with video. I get the point you’re trying to make, but I don’t see the conclusion. All three of the descriptions feel like un-smooth processes, even the one that is supposed to work best.

  • http://www.lostechies.com/members/derick.bailey/default.aspx derick.bailey

    @Evelyn

    I rarely (if ever) see any smooth process in the real world. There is always a sense of difficulty and set of issues that were unknown up front. That was the intention of the third group story / process, really. Reality is not smooth, it’s difficult and rough at times. That doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying – on the contrary, tasks that have a measure of difficulty are often the most rewarding. how much ‘fun’ would it really be to take a stroll through soft grass when you wanted to go on a hike? how much fun would it be to write the same code – the easy code that you have done already – over and over again?