It was in 2012 when I spent a couple of weeks in Indonesia. Part of the visit was a week-long trek to the heart of Papua. Papua is one of the remote places on Earth where you can still see nature mostly untouched by human hands and experience life of the original tribes like the Dani, Lani, or Yali.
We were a small group of five people with a couple of local guides and helpers. The plan was simple. Spend a couple of days trekking to the jungle, visit some of the local tribes, and eventually get picked up by a small eight-seater airplane to bring us back to the civilization.
We started from Wamena and out of the civilization we went. No mobile signal. No electricity. No hotels. No restaurants. No nothing. Just us and nature. We walked for six to eight hours a day through difficult terrain, through the jungle, crossing creeks and rivers. We drank water from these crystal-clear rivers. Ate rice and noodles we brought with us.
Every night we cleared a small patch of jungle with machetes to erect our tents. Every now and then we would meet some local tribesmen. And we would realize how incompetent and disabled we are.
The trek was planned for seven days. The most challenging part through jungle, mud, and slippery stones was three days long. With heavy boots and lots of equipment, we felt like making good progress. Until we met with local women and children, who passed us by.
Barefoot, with heavy bags of rice on their shoulders, they pretty much run through the jungle. What took us three days, they managed in one. That is when we made a startling realization. We forgot how to walk! We are so dependent on the marvels of modern civilization that we forgot the basics.
It was a great, even though physically and especially mentally difficult trek. In the end, we arrived at a small clearing where the airplane should pick us up in the afternoon. We gobbled up the last rations of noodles and waited.
And waited. And waited. Only to hear that the airplane can’t make it in this weather. It would be too dangerous for such a small plane to attempt the trip, and even if the pilot could make it, it would be too dangerous to try to take off.
We were in the middle of nowhere. No food. No idea when the weather gets better. It could be days. With this uncertainty came another realization. We are not ready to survive in the jungle without any food. Would we attempt to find a nearby village and ask for help? Would they even have enough food to share? We knew that on our own we are hopeless. Once again, back to the basics.
Luckily for us, the weather got briefly better, so the pilot took the risk and came for us the same late afternoon, and we managed to get back to Wamena without any troubles. However, the lessons learned on this trek stuck with us for a long time.
“It is tough for people to run as fast as they can through the jungle of modern business if they don’t know how to walk.”
Lesson 1: Don’t forget to walk
How does all this apply to organizations and leadership? Always remember the basics. I have seen in organizations that as they grow and mature they forget who they are. They forget to walk.
New people join the team, and no one cares enough to explain the basics. Yes, people may get trained on some HR, legal, and IT related stuff, so they understand company policies. Yes, people usually get some basic training on tools and functional knowledge.
However, very rarely leaders take the time to explain to every single employee organization’s reason for being. Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? How does our business model work and how does it impact each individual’s job? What is the philosophy and values we live by? And why? What type of culture are we trying to build? What are the basics of what makes us successful as a team?
It is challenging for everyone to be on the same page without answering these existential questions. It is tough for everyone to run as fast as he or she can through the jungle of modern business if they don’t know how to walk.
Lesson 2: Don’t get too dependent
The story of the plane reminds you second fundamental truth transferable to the business environment. If you are too dependent on one plan, one supplier, one employee, one customer, you are taking a considerable risk. Always understand what the potential risks are and come up with mitigation plans. For any healthy business, you need to have a plan B.
Planning is important. How much into the future the plan should look depends on the type of business you are running and the industry you are in. However, there is one thing that is pretty much guaranteed. The plan will go wrong. Something not under your control will always change. The weather gets worse, and the plane will not land.
So the next time you have new employees make sure you teach them the basics. Make sure everyone on the team understand why are they here and what is the purpose of the organization. And when you are planning a new initiative don’t rely on your optimism and assume that things will go wrong. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Only when you are ready for everything, you won’t get surprised by anything.
What are your thoughts on constantly repeating and retraining your employees on the company basics? How do you make sure that the new employees who join truly get who you are as an organization?
Photo: AngeloMazzotta / Pixabay.com