If You’re Stuck, You Need to See the Landscape

My father-in-law, Alvin, is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met.  When faced with any kind of significant decision, my wife and I always make sure we’ve gotten Alvin’s take on the matter before proceeding, because the man is a fountain of wisdom and life experience.  He grew up working on a farm, would race the schoolbus home (and usually win), ran his own business for most of his career, and can consistently outwork people 50 years his junior.  He’s also a combat veteran from the Vietnam War.

There’s a number of things Alvin has taught me that I’ve incorporated into how I teach and lead my clients, but one particular story of his from Vietnam is especially effective in driving home truth about business strategy and long-term growth.

When Alvin first arrived in Vietnam, one of the training exercises that soldiers would participate in was nighttime escape and evasion.  The officers had a 1 mile by 6 mile section of jungle segmented off, and at dusk the soldiers would depart from one end, with the instruction to either make it the six miles to the other end or survive until dawn without being captured … and the guys who were trying to capture you were the soldiers who had successfully evaded capture the night before.

Now, lest you think “capture” sounds like playing flag football in elementary school, remember that every single soldier on both sides of the exercise was a young man in his prime with something to prove, and the army was trying to make this experience as realistic as possible.  “Capture” didn’t mean you got touched in a game of tag – it meant literal physical capture, and you can bet that in a jungle full of young testosterone, it wasn’t exactly a pillow fight.

To make the stakes even higher, the officers had constructed a compound in the middle of the segmented land where captured soldiers were brought.  Inside this razor-wire encircled building, the prisoners would be interrogated to try to get them to give up information about their unit.  Those who weren’t cooperative were given electrical shocks, and if you hadn’t given up enough information, and you hadn’t yet lost control of your bladder, the strength of the electrical shocks just kept increasing.  Suffice it to say, this wasn’t a friendly game of paintball, and the stakes were high.

[By the way – if you know any combat veterans and you haven’t thanked them recently, I want you to stop what you’re doing and thank them right now.  Seriously – I’ll wait.]

The night my father-in-law participated in this exercise, in the middle of the night he came upon the compound, and heard the screams of the men who’d already been captured.  From a distance, he watched a soldier make a break for it and try to escape by climbing over the razor wire.  Wanting to put significant distance between himself and the compound, he backtracked a ways, and then set out to pass by the while giving himself a wide berth.

Oh, and did I mention that of the 5000 guys in his unit, Alvin was the fastest through the obstacle course?  Or that when he was a kid he would hunt pheasants by literally running them down?  Or that in his first job when he returned from Vietnam he produced by himself almost as much as the other three people doing his same job?  Alvin wasn’t exactly a soft city kid who was afraid of the dark.

Fast forward several hours, and Alvin had backed up, gone around, and thought for sure by now he was approaching the far end of the training area, and the safety that came with it.  Instead, he saw what appeared to be a second compound.  Creeping closer, Alvin found himself back at almost the exact same place where he’d originally come upon the compound and backtracked.  There was no second compound – he’d literally walked in a circle in the dark jungle.

Walking in a circle isn’t a phenomenon that happens only in cartoons, or only to newbie hikers.  In the dark, with no way to see the landscape or otherwise navigate, people can and often do literally walk in a circle while trying to move in a straight line.

What might have been different if Alvin would have been able to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape?  Well, he wouldn’t have had to trek through the jungle so far, he wouldn’t have re-encountered the danger he was working so hard to avoid, and he would have been drinking coffee and celebrating with other soldiers who’d also survived.  When you’re able to see the landscape – whether literally or figuratively – you gain the ability to plan, figure out a good strategy, and execute that strategy while avoiding danger. 

The challenges we face in business are not as dramatic as what happened to my father-in-law in Vietnam, but the consequences of failure are every bit as dire.  Like many business owners and leaders, you may look around and realize that the current state of your business really isn’t any better than it was a year ago.  You’ve given so much to your business … but you’ve walked in a circle. 

Fortunately, there’s good news!  In business we can “see the landscape” simply by being disciplined about taking time out of working IN the business to work ON the business, by deciding on and committing to a strategy, and by regularly reporting progress as a team to ensure that everyone is still executing that strategy.

If you’ve looked at your business honestly, and identified that you either have or are in danger of walking in a circle, let’s talk.

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