Every year I go backcountry snowboarding up in British Columbia. We take a snowcat up the mountain, our guides check the terrain for avalanche risk, and then we send it. The terrain varies but most runs involve navigating trees of varying densities and on relatively steep pitches with no set path to take or even tracks to follow. One of the more dangerous situations you can wind up in on the mountain is to fall into a tree well – a potentially very deep cavity near the trunk where the snow can’t penetrate due to the foliage. Whenever someone new joins our trip we give them the same advice: don’t look at the trees.
It is counterintuitive advice. As you are going down the mountain your natural instinct is to identify all the potential risks, to ensure you can avoid them. But time and again people who ignore our advice find themselves stuck under the pines. Once you fixate on a tree you are either going to hit it or hit another one you didn’t see while you were looking at the first one. Instead of looking at the trees, you need to find the path between them. You must find the negative space that doesn’t have trees. In Snowsports we call it finding the line.
I see people make this mistake all the time in their personal life. If they are unhappy they focus on the source of the unhappiness rather than other sources of happiness. I see people do this when they are anxious, sad, angry, or afraid. They fixate on a problem they are having so intently that solutions that might guide them around the problem are hard to see. Sometimes this fixation even causes new problems in their lives. I admit there are some problems that can be managed with force of will but others are as immovable as trees.
This happens to teams as well. They spend so long cataloguing what can go wrong with a product they end up producing something that isn’t bad but also isn’t particularly good. They plan to avoid failure but that isn’t the same as planning to succeed and can sometimes be anathema to it. In the rare event these products take off the team is often ill prepared to react and scale. The line doesn’t just guide you away from trees, it also guides you towards a great ride.
As a manager I have a few tricks I use to help people find the line. I like to start conversations with the value we are trying to create. When engaged in risk management conversations I ensure we don’t lose sight of why we are mitigating those risks in the first place. Because if eliminating risks was the only goal then we simply wouldn’t build anything at all.
I admit there is an art to being generally aware of the obstacles you face but maintaining your focus on the line. You certainly have to be confident in your own abilities. You have to trust that you can adapt as new obstacles present themselves. But most of all you have to remember why you are there in the first place. You didn’t go backcountry snowboarding to not hit trees. You did it to find sweet lines.