What Wilderness Navigation Taught Me About Lean Transformation

Lean Transformation
George Watt
February 23, 2021

Lean approaches drive benefits far beyond their profit-driven, private-sector roots

I hear it often. “This lean and agile stuff is cool, but it’s not really applicable to me.” “We’re not a startup.” “We create programs, not products.” “We deliver government services.” “We’re a non-profit.”

I have seen lean and agile approaches drive value in all of those cases and elsewhere. Not convinced? Here is an example that is about as “elsewhere” as you can get.

A small difference makes for great distance

I used to teach navigation using magnetic compasses and paper maps. Once someone asked, “Being off by one degree isn’t such a big deal, is it?” It can be a very big deal, as the impact of even a small error expands over time. For example, if two people leave the same point on headings one degree apart and walk only the length of a soccer field (100 meters), they will be roughly 1.75 meters (~5 feet, 9 inches) apart when the reach the end. That’s not much, but it’s enough to put someone on the wrong side of an obstacle depending upon the terrain. And if our travelers continued at a leisurely pace (typically near 5 km/hour), the distance between them would increase by over 87 meters every hour they walked. They would be more than 2 kilometers apart after one day.

It doesn’t take long for that small error to create a large problem for one of our travelers. Now, suppose they made a second minor error and became two degrees off. What if they had to work their way around an obstacle like a steep mountain or swamp and were put off course? Unchecked, the impact of every error grows, and each new error can exacerbate the impact of the ones that came before it.

“Lean Navigation”

For centuries, navigators have used a lean/agile approach to mitigate these risks. Periodically, experienced navigators ask themselves questions like “Do I know where I am?”, “Am I still moving toward the objective?”, and “Should we still be headed there?” They check their bearings to validate the hypothesis that they are still on course. They use maps, charts, and landmarks to determine their location. They observe their surroundings and the weather to determine whether their original objective is still the right objective. Sometimes they adjust their course toward a better objective, or away from a dangerous one. The modern GPS’ infamous “recalculating” message is evidence that even today’s high-tech navigators still use this approach.

Experiment, Inspect, and Adapt

Whether you are building incremental technology, a new program idea, or the next disruptive breakthrough, a similar approach can increase your odds of success. Learning from our navigators:

  • Run small experiments to validate your hypotheses (e.g., Our program will achieve our objectives)
  • Experiment frequently since conditions may change
  • Inspect and adapt based upon what you learn to ensure you create something people will want
  • “Listen to” your data

The last is, perhaps, the most important of these.

“Firm beliefs, weakly held”

If their charts and data tell them they are not where they should be, navigators don’t ignore it or try to explain away the evidence. They may validate their data if it is unexpected, but they are willing to believe their hypothesis was flawed or that some event beyond their control has changed their circumstances. They are able to overcome their own bias. Unfortunately, I have seen innovative people succumb to their own bias, ignore their data and their advisors, and run out of funding or have their program cancelled.

Lean on!

I am not claiming Magellan read the Agile Manifesto. However, I do believe that, regardless of whether you are a start-up or a large government agency – profit-focused or altruistic – the great work of lean and agile pioneers like Taiichi OhnoKent Beck, and Martin Fowler may be much more helpful to you than may be initially obvious.

About the Author

George Watt – Partner, Strategy and Innovation Practice
Becker-Carroll, A Converge Company

A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains.

He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

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