Return to Preikestolen: Musings on Vision and Strategy

Stephanie Rogen -- August 13, 2018

If you’ve read Creating Schools That Thrive (and if not, please do!) you may recall my story of hiking Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen), Norway in March, 2009.  The story of the hike became my metaphor for strategic design -- for distilling the language of strategy and helping clients make sense of the process to design and execute strategy.

We hiked it again last week - I’m nine years older (and 15 lbs heavier) and as I began the climb I wondered what would be different.  As it turned out -- everything! It was sunny and hot rather than cold and rainy. The crowds were overwhelming thanks to Tom Cruise, whose 6th Mission Impossible installment brought new attention to this spectacular cliff high above the fjord. And trail conditions had improved (perhaps to aid the film crews?).  But it was still a steep, rocky climb 2.5 miles up and 2.5 miles down.

As I hiked, I couldn’t help but recall my strategy metaphor. There is something about a hike like this -- the focused, steady process of choosing each foothold, the serene beauty of sky and rock, the wildflowers and willowy birches,  and the jaw dropping surprises of each new vista --- that stimulate deep reflection. Our family’s vision and values held -- to reach the glorious summit safely and together -- but our mission had changed a bit. This hike was grounded in a new challenge and question -- how would the experience be different this time? How could we introduce our newest family members -- all under age 10 -- to the joy?

In response, I offer here a few new insights -- consider this an addendum to Creating Schools that Thrive!

Vision may be more enduring than mission: Does this surprise you? It was a bit of an a-ha for me! I think schools take for granted that mission never changes but the truth is, in real strategy work mission can change more often than vision. Think of it this way - your vision may be to eradicate world hunger. That’s a big, audacious vision -- one that puts you out of business if you achieve it.  Your mission is likely to change more frequently -- you may start with a mission to provide food to a local population via a food pantry. You may evolve to a mission of building community gardens with your pantry as distribution, and you may then evolve to a mission that scales your pantry and garden model -- your core purpose and the strategy to deliver adapts -- but your vision holds.

Schools might benefit by thinking this way. Most schools should have a vision that endures and sustains -- and might, for example, foresee a world where your brand of education has transformed lives and produced lifelong learners who thrive and contribute.  But purpose changes --- as the conditions and needs of the world change and as you, as an organization, change - and your mission will clarify the what and how of your brand.  So recall my advice to “back into your mission” --- as you move through the design and execution of strategy your new purpose will come into sight!

If it isn’t daunting  or scary it’s probably not much of a vision: I was out of my comfort zone hiking this time. Last time I was too, but this time I actually knew how hard it would be and I wondered about my stamina (and my weak ankles). The truth is, a worthwhile vision pushes you to do what you may not be so sure you know how to do -- and it calls upon you to find capacity, to learn, and to adapt as you engage in the process. I had to test myself continuously, push through the mental and physical discomfort, and try things in order to see what worked. Nowhere was this more clear than in my attempts to scramble up and down the rocky faces of the mountainside -- never entirely sure of how well  my feet would work!

Keep your eyes up and keep your eyes down: Sort of like the balcony-dance floor metaphor that Ron Heifetz uses, the truth is you can’t hike to Pulpit Rock unless you manage to both perspectives.  I needed to see both where I was headed -- and anticipate 2-3 steps head -- as I looked down to ensure I was placing my feet where they would be stable and allow me to proceed. My husband, a naval aviator,  calls this “situational awareness” -- the ability to operate step-by-step as you take into account all the factors that surround you. It takes focus, attention, and agility -- expect to be tired! But also expect great rewards as you celebrate the success and beautiful vistas along the way.

When you can build momentum, go for it: There were moments on the hike when I could move quickly and with confidence because the conditions were just right. We were on a time push as we headed down to catch the last ferry -- so when the landscape was right, I took a chance and really moved.  I didn’t want to be the old lady who slowed us down -- and these moments allowed me flexibility when I really needed to take care. They also filled me with confidence and kept my energy up. When we execute on strategy, as a leader or a team, momentum can buoy spirits, capture much needed time, and accelerate learning. Don’t squander these moments.

If you get stuck, don’t stop longer than you need to get help: Getting stuck is often where strategy goes awry -- you hit an obstacle and quit altogether -- or maybe you revert to the old way of working.  Resist this. On a hike chances are you have to overcome or you won’t get home -- but in the day to day life of organizations people quit or regress all the time. This disruption to momentum is one of the biggest threats to success -- so push yourself to find solutions, engage others, and get the help you need to move forward on your path.  More than once on my hike, I received a helping hand in spots where I could not see the way alone.

Let children lead the way:  This last insight may be the most important. Chances are, children are a lot more agile, open, and courageous as you move forward on your journey. I watched our young cousins, ages 3, 6, and 9 literally jump like rabbits from rock to rock, often barefoot.  My fear for them was less about their capabilities and more about my own discomfort. As I saw what they could do I relaxed. And I realized they had much to teach me about how to scale Preikestolen. Our students can do the same if we let them lead.