Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding the Path

I have two Samoyeds, dogs that are bred to be on the move.   As a result, Thomas and I are committed to hiking every weekend.  We've been to our selection of local parks and recreation areas enough to know the trails.  Trails are clear paths.  You know where you are going, you can see where you've been.

We can see a water slide and park platform around a pond from one of our regular trails.  We've never seen people there.  We decided last weekend to take a side-spur to see what this platform was all about.  Hiking there we found an abandoned camp.  We then decided to hike on parallel to our regular trail, figuring we'd eventually find a path back to the trail.  Instead we found ourselves in a pasture, with some cows in the not-too-far distance, who were very interested in us.  Taking a hard right-angle, we figured we'd get back to the trail, only to find a pasture fence.  After hiking around, we found a spot to go through the fence. 

Then we had to hike cross-country through the woods.  This involves pushing through the faded rose brambles and stepping over logs.   We had to maneuver around a low-lying swampy area.  There was no path; nothing was clear.   At a higher point we paused to look for signs of the trail and saw nothing.

We were never lost, really.  We knew we were in the recreation area, and we even knew what section.  We knew which direction we left our car, and we knew where the trail was located, sort of.  But the path was not clear.  We kept going and found the trail, but we only saw it when we were about 10 feet away.

We talked about the difference of hiking on the trail versus hiking cross-country.  We both felt a very different sense of orientation.  Even when we rejoined the trail in a familiar location, we both continued to feel a sense of disorientation.  Our perspectives had changed.  We've noticed this just walking through our neighborhood, which we do daily.  Even walking on the other side of the street, or reversing the direction that we walk along the same street, gives a perspective change.

I am one to let my mind wander back to work items (probably too much).  This experience made me think about my experiences with project management.  Early in my career I worked in places where we had very locked project management processes in place.  EDS had very strict rules for project management in the 1980s.  I also worked in places where KnowledgeWare was used.  Another methodology was proprietary to the Arthur Young accounting firm where I worked.  The path for managing a project was clear, and we stayed on the path. 

When I first came to Oakland University, I brought those project management paths with me and tried to use them in the university environment.  I stuck with it for over 5 years, and felt there were some positives.  For example, one positive is that before the project management communications standard, there was a feeling at the university that the central IT organization didn't do or accomplish much.  With public project lists and joint priority setting, each silo became aware of the projects completed for other areas of the organization, and as a result, central IT's value became more apparent.

However, the path locked us out of seeing different perspectives and different ways to solve problems.  It was too easy to get locked into a particular way of seeing things, without understanding the value of the locked step.  Right now I'm more likely to try to shake things up, to see things from different angles, and to value fresh perspectives.  I also want the organization to be more agile.  If the shortest path is cross-country, we need to be ready to try it.  This is another way to create space in the organization for innovation.  Finding steps off the common path help inspire us all.