Fire Lookout

Fire lookouts do not universally occupy the tallest peak, the most alpine perch, or the easiest to access. When well placed, they offer a panoramic view, a platform where multiple mountain ranges might be visible, providing a higher value to those assigned to fire lookout duty.

When we commence strategic or scenario planning, perhaps the best location (or mindset) is the proverbial fire lookout. A place that affords us an informed view of the terrain around us. Maybe a bit set back from the iconic landscape that defines our work. Many organizations refer to their off-site gatherings as ‘retreats’ an opportunity to disengage from our sense of place and view the environment from a new perspective. It is a chance to recon routes we wish to travel on our next adventure. We posses a more informed sense of the landscape by being removed from it instead of stopping mid-trail and speculating during our journey.

Critical Moment

A 200-mile cycling competition might start as a large pack until the peloton encounters an obstacle. The selection might be forced by a significant climb, strong crosswind, change in riding surfaces, a team employing tactics, or a crash. The race splits into smaller groups, or even individuals riding solo. Ultimately, the race may finish in multiple groups, or it may come back together for a sprint. Competitors must assess if an event represents the critical momentDo they need to accelerate to remain at the front, or do they believe the group will come back together further down the road?

How we assemble ourselves and prepare for the competition will ultimately be impacted by our assessment of the critical moment. If we believe the race will end in a sprint, then it will change our preparation compared to a competition that will be decided by several long climbs.

The same approach holds for our organizations. Are we preparing ourselves for the critical moment? Even if we do not know what it might be, how it will unfold, and when it will happen? Are we building an organization that can adapt, pivot, or stays the course? Are we discussing other iterations and disruptions? Assuming that we will continue forward at the same pace, cadence, power, and tactics will leave us behind.



Sometimes the journey is difficult and we seek safety and certainty about the outcome of the adventure.  Sometimes the conditions turn, our assumptions prove wrong, and the final result tips towards failure.  When these moments finally pass, we are able to reflect back with sharper details and sensations than most moments.  I recall how cold my hands felt at the end of a winter training session when I under dressed and the headwind generated polar windchill factors.  I hunker down when I feel intense heat, memories of crawling into structure fires as a volunteer firefighter.   I skip a breathe thinking of my front road bike tire unable to maintain traction as I slid across the pavement, five hours into a twelve hour cycling competition.  I see traces of the cycling wound, my fingers are haunted by a phantom numbness, and the heat from a bonfire sets off a reflex to go low.

These memories from our wildest adventures add depth to our being.  They do not define us because we will find new journeys with equally perilous outcomes.  To believe we are defined is to suggest that we have finished exploring.  Seek out the difficult and challenging.  The reason we continue to plan and set goals is due to the human element and that is what adds depth to the journey.


Profound Planning in History


I have seen versions of the above image in history textbooks.  A quick glance and brief text were enough to know that this was a harbor constructed to support D-Day Invasion on Normandy.  An impressive number of ships, lots of activity, and roadways stretching into the harbor seem to tell the story.  What I did not know was the detailed plan behind the harbor.  Nicknamed Mulberry B is was located in Arromanches, France on Gold Beach with the intention of serving the British and Canadian forces.  The harbor was completely devised using old ships scuttled in place, and pre-fabricated pieces flooded on-site as no historical harbor existed in the location.  It was planned over a year in advance, constructed in England, barged over behind the invasion forces on June 6, 1944, and almost finished on June 19th when a ferocious storm hit it.  Mulberry B survived while the United State’s harbor, Mulberry A, on Omaha Beach was abandoned due to storm damage.  All Allied supplies and equipment disembarked upon this floating structure, thoughtfully designed to adapt to 30 feet of tidal flow.  Today, a few remnants sit above sea level, enough to give perspective to the magnitude of Operation Overlord.  The Allied forces understood that getting personnel on the beach was the first obstacle.  The second challenge was hastily placing enough equipment and supplies on-shore to avoid the Axis time to pin the Allied troop against the Channel.


It is worth remembering the power of thinking about the steps beyond the next step.  The actions that are required to allow us to thrive once we have reached a critical benchmark.  The planning and execution of a temporary harbor made a profound difference to the outcome of World Wat Two.

Long Term Progress

Seth Godin’s asked: What are you willing to give up today in exchange for something better tomorrow? Next week? In ten years?

The immediate place this resonates on most social sector agendas is during the financial report.  How often has the balance sheet driven the mission of an organization?  When did doing what is right become the brave thing to do?  Are we perpetuating a problem so our coffers stay full or are we willing to tackle obstacles while acknowledging that our efforts may or may not work?

In my experience, while brainstorming during long-term visioning exercises the most frequent organizational wish list item: an endowment/reserve fund (bigger endowment if one already exists).  It is not always the first thing mentioned but once the words ‘endowment’ are put forth there is a chorus of support.  As if the idea of financial security is more important than solving the very problem/furthering the opportunity the enterprise was founded to address.  Protecting the organizational shield outranks the desire for great quest.  Yet, I am short on stories about the knights of the roundtable who stayed home and collected membership fees.

Some people will risk a lot in pursuit of long-term progress.  Embarking on the journeys that are uncertain.  This is the edge where we should be planning.  Being self-sustaing but unremarkable is not original.  Far too many groups have traveled the path and their legacy (at best) is a mountain full of treasure guarded by a dragon and off limits to almost everyone.

What are you willing to give up today?  Why does it matter?