I am heading to Montana – where I was raised – for the holidays. We stay at a ranch near Lost Trail Pass, way up in the Bitterroots, a particularly wild section of the Rockies. We ride horses in the snow, snowshoe, ski and dog sled. We eat well too!

Lost Trail Pass is where the Lewis & Clark Expedition almost destroyed itself. The two leaders had brought on a Shoshone guide, Old Toby, and were in a great hurry to find a path through the high pass before winter set in. They ignored their normally considered approach, threw planning to the wind, and decided to take a “shortcut.” Over the next several days, they encountered impassable scree slopes, rain and sleet, and dead ends. Three horses died, several others were gravely injured, precious food and other gear were lost. And at the end, they ended up no further ahead than where they had started. I know these mountains well: they are beautiful …. and potentially fatal.

I have been deeply concerned lately about the phenomenon of “speed above all.” Business books and articles abound about the power of Lean, about the importance of agility, and about the use of processes like Scrum (originally developed as an alternative to waterfall approaches for software development). I am bothered not because I don’t believe in these ideas, but because of how I see them being used. The example of Lewis & Clark seems apt: you can have a great team, solid gear and experienced guides and still get very lost.

My colleagues and I help clients build strategic frameworks to address their rapidly evolving realities. We try to keep process simple and to encourage unfettered thinking — followed up with disciplined execution. However, I keep running into situations where the thinking part of the endeavour has been supplanted by agile/lean processes — with a lot of time and money spent on the equivalent of a bunch of lost horses.

In Absence of Strong Leadership, unintended consequences can happen

  • In one case, the company spent hundreds of millions on a manufacturing transformation that was never questioned, never piloted — and that didn’t work. It was a beautifully conceived continuous manufacturing process that neglected the fact that the company’s product is built in batches. After three years of work, they tossed out the plans, sold off the equipment they couldn’t use, and started over.
  • A close colleague told me last week about her client: a financial institution using scrum techniques to drive marketing campaigns. The team put several key aspects of the campaign into the backlog (like testing the message and sorting out production issues) and completely missed the time window for the program.
  • Another company decided that they needed to adopt an “agile culture.” They are learning scrum techniques, are hiring scrum masters, are racing ahead with self-directed teams. But they skipped the part of the process where they defined the destination and what it will look like; they haven’t done the kind of research that will give them insights into what the customer wants; they haven’t carefully assessed the competition. They assume they know – just like Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke did. The upfront work to enable the teams to go in the right direction has been replaced with the clarion call of speed, speed, speed.

In all of these cases, the team and the horses looked great: the men well-fed, the horses brushed and outfitted with the best saddles (techniques, training, scrum masters) but the planning was glossed over.

I know that many would say that this is not the fault of the process. And I would completely agree. This is a failure of leadership: not taking the time to think strategically. Not asking enough questions. Not insisting on proofs of concept. If you want to get there fast be sure that the horse has a good rider who knows where he’s going — and what he’s going to find there.