What trail running taught me about making strategic decisions

Recently I attended one of the provinces most prestigious university business schools to learn about Strategic Decision Making. I was really looking forward to the course as I wanted to know how those leaders made split second decisions that turned out to be brilliant. Some of my favorite leaders  seemed to have this super power of being able to walk into a room, ask a few questions and then turn a super complicated and chaotic scenario into a simple and straight forward decision. I was looking forward to learning how to achieve this level of confident decisiveness that would lead to amazing results.

Instead, I met two nice teachers who introduced us to a few books on the subject. It was soon apparent that the two day class was going to be a bit like a bad book club where we were forced to sit in a room and talk about books we never read. We were given handouts that were printed segments of the books that we neatly folded up and put into nicely branded binders never to be seen again by the human eye. The teachers felt the need to engage us so they asked us questions and probed for our opinion on the subject. This made us feel smart as we spoke in front of the class and commented on what we would do in the hypothetical situation. There was no right or wrong answer so it was easy to act like we knew what we were talking about and it killed the time between snack breaks. As a high Di on DiSC this session drove me mad.

After two days of this it became very clear that I was not going to learn about strategic decision making from people that had never experienced it. Models that outline how decision making takes place was equally useless. There seemed to be a lot of emphasis on a systematic approach that was required in order for leaders to make decisions. Hours of R&D and modelling seemed required for the simplest of decisions. I wasn’t buying it.

It was only after a long trail run did I realize that we all make decisions all the time and the more we make, the better we get. That instinctual super fast strategic decision making that I had witnessed from senior executives was the result of experience.

There isn’t a book you can read, a course you can take, or a pill you can eat that will make you a lot better at making strategic decisions (or trail running for that matter). You need the experience.

As I ran the trail I began to think about the strategic decisions I was making every second. It started with my choice to run. I had decided to make an investment in my  health. I was invested in doing this activity over anything else. I enjoy the simplicity of running through the woods and the calmness I feel. My mind opens up and ideas pour in. For me it is worth the cost of any gear. Cost/benefit analysis done.

Today it was pouring down rain so I didn’t reach out to anyone else. I didn’t even think about it. Instinctively I knew that I didn’t want to be distracted as the rain would make it very slippery and muddy. I needed to be able to concentrate. No chatting today.

As I began my run I made some route decisions. I had run this area many times before and knew my energy levels today. Before I hit the fork in the road I know which way I would be going. I don’t remember making the decision but it was made. Occasionally I will switch up my route depending on how I feel. If I am sick or sore I make it shorter. Its about a second of mental processing to figure this out as I know my body.

Today’s rain made the trail very muddy and slippery. The roots were shiny which meant they were wet and slick. I was stepping in the mud today which I would normally avoid. I was getting dirtier than normal as I had done a risk assessment and decided this was the better course of action over my normal method of stepping on roots. One slip and I would go down on hard sharp rocks or six inches of mud. I wasn’t excited about either option so, muddy shoes it was.

Foot placement was taking place at a rate of about 1 every second. I could actually hear my brain calculating three steps ahead. Step here between the roots so right foot can reach that dry spot now push off hard so left foot can make contact with that flat rock. If I focused I could hear my brain processing it but as soon as I was distracted this became subconscious. My brain needed to keep my conscious perception open as the park has bears and other animals I needed to watch out for. While my appetite, thirst, foot placement, body temperature, energy levels and overall fatigue were important I was filtering this out and thinking about my priorities next week.

I was operating on automatic and my instincts were guiding my actions based on my experience. There wasn’t any guess work and there wasn’t any bad decisions. I ended up down by the lagoon and then stopped. How did I end up here? Oh ya I had automatically changed my route as the other way has three giant mud puddles that are impossible to circumnavigate when it rains. I’d made a strategic decision without even knowing it. I did’t even think about where I was until I realized I had made such a decision. My mind was a week ahead planning my Wednesday next week.

Top executives have been to more than one rodeo. They know the pitfalls and the traps. They know your body language and what your words actually mean. They can read a room in seconds without even thinking about it just as I head read the trail. Their foot placement occurs at a rate most of us are not used to and they can easily avoid those giant puddles because they have ran similar trails before. The combination of experience and good instincts is very powerful and beats any model. If I had done a SWAT analysis of every bit of the trail I would still be out there in the rain. Strategic decisions often need to be made in a timely manner as the situation has an expiration date. Just as I don’t have a lot of time before my foot finds a spot to land, our decisions must be made with confidence within a time frame.

When I am in really gnarly terrain I take smaller steps. I don’t stop and often if I am going down hill I will take the fall line straight down. Small steps so I can easily compensate for any balance issues but always moving. Strategic decision making doesn’t have to be slow and cumbersome. Put the book down. Forget about the model for a while. Take a small step forward. Was it in the right direction? Yes? Then continue. No? Change your angle of approach and try again. You will find the fall line eventually and it won’t take as long as you think.

The books are interesting and the models might be helpful but trusting our instincts that are developed over years of experience appears to be much more efficient and effective.

See you on the trail!

  1. 6 years ago

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