November  2009     Edition 55
When you can't see the path

In the early 1800’s, one monumental objective

was to find and develop a route that would cross the Rocky Mountains and was traversable by horse pulled wagons. This was a purposeful project with the goal of settling and developing the western U.S.   In those days, there were no airplanes, no helicopters, no satellite imaging companies, no GPS systems, and no drones with cameras.   When the leaders at that time first declared this goal, no one had a map to show them the route to take … they just knew they had to find a way.

The Oregon trail was the first

“wagon train” traversable route from Missouri to the West Coast.   Early explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, set out to find paths through the Rocky Mountains, and while they discovered several routes, these were all too rugged for wagons.  In an effort to avoid a troublesome encounter with the Blackfoot Indians, a trapping expedition, commissioned in 1812 by John Astor, and led by Wilson Hunt, veered south of the trail forged by Lewis and Clark.  They discovered South Pass, a broad valley that provided a natural crossing point through the Rockies.   Unfortunately, this pass did not become widely known until it was rediscovered ten years later in 1824, by Jedediah Smith.  The South Pass, in addition to several other discovered routes, became the Oregon trail in 1832 when 20 wagons crossed over to the west.

In business, we often have goals to accomplish but don’t have a clear path to get there.

Here are a few lessons learned from the history of the Oregon Trail;

1. Make sure your goal is very clear.

  (e.g. Find a path across the Rockies that can accommodate a train of standard horse pulled wagons).

2. Use the work and discovery of others.

   The Oregon Trail was pieced together from numerous discoveries of others.  Many of these discoveries came from another “industry”.  Fur trappers discovered numerous routes, yet they were not part of the goal of developing the west.   Seek help and discovery from those in other departments, companies and industries, even if they are working towards other goals.

3. Look out for the accidental discovery

.   The discovery of South Pass was an accident, but this eventually was the key to the solution. 

4. Create a knowledge base, a repository of information.

   Knowledge is power, and while you may discover things that might seem unimportant, recording it and ensuring easy access and dissemination of this information might be critical.   Again, note that the initial discovery of South Pass disappeared for ten years.

5. Create a Prototype, a trial, a first version

.   Once the Oregon trail was mapped out, only 20 wagons first traversed the route. Only after their success were other wagon trains organized to follow this route.

6. Don’t give up

.  Be tenacious about your goal, and despite almost insurmountable barriers, continue to look for ways, around, through, over, and under them.  Innovation and discovery requires this.  The early settlers didn’t get it right the first time.

The Takeaway:
Lessons learned from accomplishments of the past can really help you execute goals of the future.  When the path isn’t clear, it’s time to go on the hunt for information that will make it clear.   Seek out the knowledge and invention of others.   Don’t focus on discovering the pieces yourself, but focus on piecing the discoveries of others together to create your path, i.e. solution.

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