What Businesses Can Learn from a Scout Hike

For many of us, the time spent in Scouts is where valuable traits such as leadership, planning, and communications were first rooted. Now in the business world, we find ourselves still drawing upon those early lessons learned.

This past summer, I had the privilege of serving as an adult advisor for my son’s Scout troop at Philmont Scout Ranch in the New Mexico backcountry.  For 12 days, eight 15 year olds and four adult leaders traversed 73 miles over 13,000 feet of elevation gain. 

These are impressive metrics. Many leaders and their teams, however, confuse their KPIs with their goals. 

Goals vs. Metrics

While our KPIs included “hike 73 miles over 12 days,” to “hit our daily waypoints” and “zero 15 year olds eaten by bears,” our goals and reasons for being out there were quite different.  Our goals included the development of self-reliance, confidence and grit.  To facilitate belief in oneself and selfless teamwork, and leadership skills that can be drawn upon for a lifetime.  We also wanted to enjoy the 12 days in pristine wilderness with our friends, parents and sons.  Finally, we wanted our kids to be enthusiastic about getting back out there again and again, and for a lifetime.

We hit the Trail and Faced Reality

In no less than two days on trail, we’d taken 4 hours to walk a straight 3 mile line.  We left camp 2 hours after schedule.  We’d bushwhacked for miles to get back on course.  We set up camp in the dark, and ate dinner at 11pm. 

My mind drifted back several years to my first term in Business School, where I read Eliyahu M Goldratt’s operations handbook, “The Goal”. Most MBAs will remember his most famous chapters, where Goldratt, a factory operations specialist, recounted his own walk with his son’s scout troop. 

So we put our “Herbie” up front.  The leaders figured out our “mental management dashboards,” loaded with KPIs for pace, Gantt-chart critical path analysis, and fully re-engineered camp setup and breakdown workflows; this Troop was fully McKinseyed.  And none of it worked until the team embraced these ideas as their own.

My recent client, a US-based bank working through significant data governance change under the watchful eye of their regulator, may seem a far cry from manufacturing facilities or the long trails of Philmont Boy Scout camp. Upon reflection, however, there are more similarities than differences. 

Below are some lessons not only on operations management, but leadership principles that will help you get the most out of your teams and leaders, and enjoy the journey while you’re at it. 

Key Takeaways from the Trek

1. Communicate your Objectives:

Overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable lists of tasks, team members often focus on details that aren’t important to the overall objective.

In the backcountry, we ensured the crew was aware of where they were going, and worthwhile activities  or necessary waypoints along the way, such as clean water sources.  The Scouts met every morning and reviewed the day, including terrain to cover, weather, activities and highlights we could opt-in or out of. In doing so, we all understood “The Goal”, and had a voice in recalibrating it. There were times when an activity was possible, but it might mean that we would have to summit a mountain later in the day during a monsoonal thunderstorm.  Would we want to set out early, or skip archery to take the peak?

For Agile-driven organizations, Program Increment Planning and daily standups serve a similar purpose. Still, a strategic vision and “commander’s intent” needs to be revisited in All-Hands, Strategy sessions and informal sync-ups to ensure The Goal is known and understood.  Plans live in contexts, but these contexts aren’t always shared and often change.  Communication ensures leaders and their teams hear when conditions change, and assumptions need to be revisited with better information.

2. Review your Team’s Bottom-up Plan

While leaders may be comforted by confident lieutenants, KRIs, KPIs and dashboards, they must sit down with the team and have them speak to their plans in order to ensure everyone truly understands them.

On the backpacking trek, the role of “Navigator” fell upon a different Scout each day. With a compass and map, he was responsible for getting us from this morning’s camp to the next one several miles away., hitting all waypoints in between.  

For the first few days, I asked our navigators if they were comfortable with their plan.  Trusting their confident “Yes!,” I also had GPS, and knew that I could intervene if needed (even if I wasn’t supposed to). 

But this didn’t work.  Less confident scouts would stop every few minutes to check their map and compass, impeding progress and fluidity.  On the other side of the spectrum, others would over-confidently wander East when we should have been going West. 

After a few days and several extra miles, I decided that each morning I would sit down “over the map” with that day’s Navigator.  He would talk me through the day ahead.  I’d ask questions such as “How long would it take to get to that junction of trails using yesterday’s pace, and what visible queues should we look for in order to know we were at the correct spot?”  This 15 minute ritual built a relationship between Scout and Leader, and confidence for the Scout in their own leadership abilities.  They knew that plan, and knew that I knew it as well.  These were the most enjoyable moments of each day, and certainly the most productive.

Like me with my GPS, leaders and managers in the office have dashboards to indicate business cadence and trajectory; however,  nothing is more important than sitting down with those on the ground and reviewing their plan with them.  Have them walk you through multiple options, voicing the trade-offs and rationale for their choices.  Ask them about likely scenarios and risks, and the “safe bailouts”.  What are the success metrics and how will we know we’ve achieved them?  The plan may or may not change after the review; however, with certainty, your delegated leader will own it, and expect you to own it with them.

3. Plan Using your Constraints

In planning dependencies, how often do leaders default to the Critical Path, setting up the program, team and perhaps individuals for unrealistic timelines and ultimate failure?

As outlined in The Goal, the “acceptance criteria” for a hiking trek is the whole organization arriving at the destination safely.  It doesn’t matter that the fastest person made it there 15 minutes before the last person; in fact, it’s a horrible experience for all, and presents unnecessary risks as a separated group may end up in different locations and unable to link up. 

The same thing happens to businesses, with less constrained groups hurrying up and waiting, and perhaps needing to retool their deliverables when an interdependency doesn’t deliver on time or at the planned meeting point.

Leaders must recognize which parts of the organization will have the slowest pace, carry the heaviest loads, or are likely to suffer the most interruptions and “injections” that may throw off the cadence of the group.  They constantly seek to serve their teams by asking questions such as:

  • What should we say “no” to?
  • How can we sequence the work so the rest of the organization isn’t waiting on these dependencies?
  • Can capacity be managed through automation, rebalancing the work, or simplification?
  • Are their unrealistic dependencies on people and organizations given the other initiatives that will usurp their priorities?
  • What capabilities or other activities can less constrained persons be engaged in while these slower activities run their course?
  • How can the team deploy consultants and contractors to surge through more demanding times?
  • Do risks on the “shortest path” threaten a timeline; would a less direct route mitigate risks?

4. Conduct After-Action Reviews

What did we do well, what could we do better, what would we do differently?  So much can be learned from these basic questions.  They are worth asking.

In the Scouts, each evening we made a campfire and circled around it.  We took the time to listen to each other, and ensured the less vocal youth and adults had their chance to get airtime.  Everyone spoke, and everyone listened.  We heard everyone, and it made a difference.  The ritual is called “Roses, Thorns and Buds”, where each person shares the best of their day, the worst of their day, and what they look forward to for tomorrow.  We laughed together, but also learned how our actions could improve the morale and performance of others.  It was impactful and actionable.

In fast moving teams or projects, the loudest voices are the ones most often heard.  Teams need mechanisms to promote the voices of the less animated or more timid members of their organization.

While businesses need to find ways to ensure all voices are heard, in order to do so they must create platforms that promote all voices to speak.  The ritual works best when everyone knows they are expected to both speak and listen, and demonstrate empathy by changing behavior based on the feedback.

5. Take in the views and celebrate:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. – Ferris Bueller

The Scouts performed tremendously in New Mexico.  Waking up on the hard ground, weighed down by gallons of water and gear-filled packs, a 5am alarm would welcome us to 10 miles of hiking and 2400 vertical feet gain. Repeating this day-after-day, It’s easy to stare at the heels in front of you and just get on with it. 

But with a little mindfulness, such as tilting your head 30 degrees, you will notice the beautiful view rolling before you.  Tuning out the voices of doubt in your head, you can hear the birds sing and call, or the quaking aspens rustle in the cool breeze.  Taking a break on a beautiful ridge, you can share the view in awe with your team.  And those are the moments you remember and why you went out there in the first place.

My clients work tremendously hard, and most often their great work is rewarded with even more assignments and tasks.   Work is and should be gratifying.  But so too is stopping, looking back over the trail you just blazed with your comrades, and saying or hearing, “you know, you really helped me out back there and did a great job.  Look at all we’ve done and what we’ve become.” 

When I think of the most challenging feats accomplished together with my best colleagues, up against tight timelines and stretch-goal requirements, those are the moments I remember.  And those are the teams that stick together in the long run.

See you out on trail.

At Further Advisory, we pride ourselves on not just doing great project work for our clients, but also being advisors and coaches to many of them. Partner with us, and let’s enjoy the hike to the summit together.

About the author


  • Eric Dorre

    Eric is an experienced operator, advisor, and consultant to companies pivoting at the intersection of technology disruption and regulatory change.

From Strategy to Reality®

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