Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Taking the path of most resistance

I was thinking today about one of my favorite books - The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - and the quote from the book that forms the title.  I won't bore you with a rehash, except to say that the main character is told that "the path to salvation is as narrow and difficult to walk as a razor's edge".  This from a Buddhist monk the main character, Larry, meets during his journey to find himself and his purpose not long after the end of the first World War.

One of the things we are constantly taught is to find the path of least resistance - the well-defined, well-trodden path that others have taken.  This is the safest, most secure path.  The one that is easiest to travel, has the least amount of risk.  The path is known, secure and goes to a specific destination.  This is the path most of us walk every day.  The only problem is that there isn't anything new on the path.  You don't explore anything new, discover anything new.  You aren't confronted by anything new.  Plenty of people go along with you to explain the path to you and keep you safely in the path.

As you might guess, the path of least resistance is easy to walk, and has little to offer in the way of innovation.  If you want to innovate, you must leave the proven path, take the path of some or most resistance.  Because it's in the exploration and discovery, going where others haven't gone, that you'll learn new things, uncover new issues or challenges, find new opportunities or solutions.

There are several components to walking any path that we must consider here:  the path itself, the people on the path, the "off-piste" that defines the area outside the path.

The Path

While much of this post has been a meditation on "paths" and their purposes, we all live and work in stable, defined paths or processes.  We go to work, follow established and documented processes and procedures, identify and achieve short term milestones and go home.  The next day we do it all again.  These are well-worn, well-described paths that are necessary for effective and efficient operations.  Efficient processes and pathways must exist for a company to scale and operate efficiently.  The problem is that the paths and processes become barriers to thinking and exploration rather than enablers - things that were meant to get you places become things that bar you from new places.  Soon, people are improving the paths and processes, grading them and paving them for even more ease of use, which encourages more alignment and less discovery and exploration.  Soon it becomes difficult and expensive to leave a path or process, and one fraught with risk and the potential of ridicule. 

As hackneyed as the quote is, Frost is right: "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference".

If you are going to innovate, you need to pioneer your own paths.  Sometimes you'll have a specific destination in mind, sometimes you'll simply go exploring.  But either way, you've got to get out of the existing wheel ruts, pathways and guardrails to go into the untamed areas of your business or industry.  You cannot innovate from within the safe confines of your existing paths and processes.

The people on the path

What's important to understand is that there will be two kinds of people you'll encounter on the path:  those who want to reinforce the importance of the path, and those who are interested in leading you off the path.  Those who want to reinforce the path we call "management".  Management is paid to ensure that a company gets the most from the least amount of resources, that the company is highly predictable and eliminates variability.  This means sticking to the path, and ensuring everyone sticks to the path.  Managers find people who are wandering from the path and bring them back to the path. They enforce focus and attention on the next milestones on the path.

You'll meet a few people on the path who aren't so interested in the path but who are interested in the journey.  These are discoverers and explorers, who are interested and comfortable leaving the path, no matter what the consequences.  They are rare in corporations and are usually outside the mainstream, typically a unit of one, who are allowed to roam and discover because they've proved their value, but they very rarely scale.  Unless you have a thick skin and are dedicated to leaving the path to fully embrace exploration and discovery, you want to ignore these people and never become one.

If you are going to innovate, you must ignore the people who define and maintain the existing paths and processes - which is exceptionally difficult to do within a corporation - and define your own paths and processes, discover your own destinations, experiment and explore as you see fit.  This is remarkably easier to do than it seems, if at first you learn to ignore all the concerns and constraints and just start doing it.  As Arthur Dent learns in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, the trick to flying is  "..The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss..."

Going Off-piste

The French have a lovely word for the area outside of the safe path - off-piste.  It means the areas in a ski slope off of the groomed slope.  Off-piste is uneven, ungroomed, slightly dangerous.  There are few other tracks.  A fall in the off-piste area can lead to greater injury.  Skiing on the off-piste also means more fresh powder, more exciting experiences, more exploration and discovery.  Going off-piste has uncertainties and risks, but going with the right attitude and perhaps a guide can lead to remarkable discoveries.

If you want to innovate, you need to go "off-piste".  Following the safe and practical pathways and processes within your business or industry will only lead to at best incremental change.  To make any new discoveries, to create anything truly new and interesting, you need to leave the path of least resistance and go off-piste.

What does it mean to go off-piste?  When skiing it means more danger, fewer maps, greater risk of falling but in many cases more exhilaration.   When innovating it means leaving the company or industry constraints behind, going exploring without a set destination, learning new things, assimilating new discoveries.  It will mean new work and new experiences that when synthesized may not perfectly fit into the existing way of doing business.  Which is why the path of most resistance is pursued so rarely.  It takes an engaged, dedicated, creative individual or team to go off-piste, and a company ready to embrace novelty and change to accept what the team brings back.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:41 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home