Sometimes we forget to map out our journey or project plan or strategy. Maybe that
works most of the time. And then there are those times when we find ourselves mired in the weeds, off the beaten path, or climbing the wrong peak.

Here’s my story of how easily that can happen – and did (!) And how to avoid that in your business.

My Personal Story of Going Off Track

When you first show up as a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder, there are a few activities that are absolute musts. You must try skiing at least once. You have to eat at the Alferd Packer Grill on campus, named by the students after a confessed local cannibal from the 19th century. And you must climb the Third Flatiron.

A Simple Hike

The Flatirons are the iconic, picture perfect Front Range sandstone slabs that uniquely identify Boulder. They inspire artists, photographers, hikers, and climbers. At some point, every new CU student ends up climbing the tallest of them, the Third Flatiron. It’s just one of those things you have to do at least once if you live in Boulder. Sound hard? It’s not. They say it’s just a 3-hour round trip from the parking area. Two men became the stuff of legend by climbing the Third Flatiron in roller skates. No, we’re not just gullible here; this is confirmed. If it’s published, it must be true, right? Well in this case, you can see proof of Dale Johnson and Phil Robertson on their famous climb in 1953; yes, you can see the roller skates on their feet here.

So naturally, after a few months on campus, about a half dozen of us freshmen decided it was about time we got initiated. Yeah, there are some routes for real climbers, all obvious; but we knew the popular route was a piece of cake. After seeing those Flatirons looking at us every day, we had the idea we were off for a pleasant hike in our backyard. We put on our hiking boots and light day packs with water bottles, sunscreen, and cameras, and headed straight for the nearest Flatiron. We parked at the first ‘obvious’ parking area and ventured up the Flatiron on a clear, well-marked path. A great start! We make good, solid progress over the next couple hours. Yeah, it’s work and we have to take breaks, but we’re right on track. As we approach the summit, we’re getting excited. We’ll get some fabulous photos. We all gather together on the highest outcropping, look around, and… uh, oh. We’re not at the top. Just ahead, we see a much higher peak. And there’s a big valley between our little peak and the real summit. But we’re on an adventure, and this is all par for the course; so, we take a short photo break and head down into the valley.

Fast forward a few hours. We’ve traipsed down into what we thought would be a small valley, and now we’re slogging up the next mountain. It’s becoming more arduous. How could that be? The next peak is only a few hundred feet away from the first. We push on and finally emerge onto a spectacular peak with gorgeous scenery. With a sigh of relief we look around, and … uh, oh. Again, we see a higher peak ahead. All that work and we’re still not at the summit. And guess what? There’s another big valley between us and the next summit. We need a longer break this time. Did anybody bring some food? We’d better put on more sunscreen. Again, we push on.

The next valley is a lot bigger than we expected. And climbing up the other side is hard. My feet hurt. I’m tired. I need to take breaks … a lot of them. But we are determined. We push and stop, and push and stop. Hours and hours seem to go by, but we finally straggle onto the summit. Sigh of relief, yes, this is actually the summit. We look around at a spectacular view. Then we look at each other. We’re all sunburnt to a crisp. SPF 15 is fine for a 3-hour trip but not for this one. And our water bottles are empty. This is putting a serious damper on our victory. We take our photos and start straggling down the mountain toward the car. Yes, we had made it. I think they call this a Pyrrhic victory. We limped up to our car more than 10 hours after we’d arrived.

This Was Not the Plan

So, what really happened here? We were going on a very popular trip that we’d heard a lot about. Everybody does the Third Flatiron… and even in roller skates. Did we get a map? Why would we? We all know it’s really easy. Where do we go? That’s obvious – just follow the crowd. So, did we actually plan our trip? Not at all. We thought all we had to do was follow the crowd.

Where did we go wrong? It turns out there are multiple parking areas and multiple crowds. We pulled off at the first one, which was at the base of the First Flatiron instead of the Third. Would the crowd at the base of the Third Flatiron have been bigger? Probably, but since we stopped at the First, we’ll never know. What to do and where to go looked obvious … but we had no reference points, so any clear path appeared to be the right path. How would our venture have been different if we’d gotten a map, or if we’d asked someone who had climbed the Third Flatiron for specific instructions?

A Simple Map

A crude drawing could have shown the road in, the Third Flatiron parking lot, and a trailhead marked “Start Here!” Our day could so easily have been a roaring success. We each knew others who could have drawn the map for us, but we assumed the way was obvious.

We see similar assumptions in many prospective clients. They want a new website and SEO … because that’s what everybody says you need if you want more sales. Is that a real plan? Is it an actual map? If you just want a nice-looking site, it can seem easy; but pretty won’t get you sales. You could end up very sunburnt … or at least you could get burnt. Any path dangled in front of you might look easy at first. What difference would a map tailored to your goals make? Or getting specific answers to questions targeting your issues? It may look like more work at first, but even a small amount of targeted planning up front can save you from slogging down wrong paths and produce big results on the back end.

Planning Can Be Simple

Does a map need to be detailed to show you the way? Not really. What’s important is that the correct path is clear. You don’t need detail about your alternatives. You only need your path to stand out as clearly marked.

What’s this got to do with business planning? A good business analysis shines light on the best route. Your map should mark that route, so everyone clearly understands it. A well-known route may have obstacles already flagged. An analysis doesn’t seem like much work at all when it prevents you from going the wrong way.

Invariably we hear that business problems are different, so much more difficult and complex. But is that true? Hikes are similar in that they have a goal, a starting point, a timetable, needed supplies and actions. A 100-mile hike has the same components as a day hike and can be effectively planned as a series of day hikes. There is a process that is in essence quite straightforward. That process is another version of your map.

Likewise, business projects have a similar structure with goals, timetables, supplies, and actions. When you start with the basic process, you are clarifying your map from a 30,000-foot view. And you know what this approach does for you? It keeps you from climbing the wrong peak.

This might seem oversimplified, but if you explore the history of business and industry, you’ll find it littered with long-gone companies who climbed the wrong peaks. Those processes are your maps and are far more valuable than mere tools. They provide clarity, teamwork, shared vision, and a North Star to follow. Then you’ll know what to do and can enjoy a productive, fun climb that gets you where you want to go… together and on time.

You know what that feels like? It’s a shared high. A goal reached! And here at Essential 3, that’s why we do what we do.