In the great American tradition of Tom Sawyer, last month, our family spent three days on a raft floating down a river. It wasn’t the mighty Mississippi, but the Snake River proved more than enough to slow down for three lazy days on a raft with no cell service.
With four kids and a dog, it’s remarkable how much preparation goes into a short trip. Everything from mapping the route, picking the campsites along the way, planning the meals, researching rapids and other obstacles, and packing all the gear. It’s quite a production.
I confess that part of the personal appeal of a river trip is my obsession with fly fishing for trout. I spent hours researching the hatches and flows, looking at satellite pictures of each stretch of river, and otherwise preparing to increase the odds of getting in some fishing during the float. The challenge is that I had to row the boat. With four kids, a dog, and all of our gear, attempting to fly cast, an act that involves managing a pile of 70 feet of line at my feet not to mention a fishhook zinging over everyone’s heads as I work to get a cast to just the right spot, all the while keeping the boat oriented in the right direction and dodging any obstacles in the river; the exercise quickly becomes a three-ring circus.
All of that planning and preparation came together when we reached a stretch of river that I knew would be perfect for keeping the boat on track and hitting some very “fishy” locations. The night before, I had rigged a rod with the fly that I had seen buzzing around during the day and set it up in the boat so that I could quickly access it when we got to that ideal stretch of river I knew we would cover. I carefully positioned the boat, quickly jumped out of my seat and pitched a very long cast out away from the raft into some of the most ideal water of the entire float. As the fly lazily drifted over the drop off that I knew just had to hold a big fish, a large shape emerged from the depths like a submarine to the surface and engulfed the golden stonefly imitation on the end of my line.
Chaos ensued as the Yellowstone Cutthroat, now attached to the end of my fly rod shot out of the water and ran all over the river. “Dad’s got a fish!!!” And of course, the dog proceeded to jump all over the raft making a mess of things in a vain attempt to understand what was so exciting. By force of will or a stroke of dumb luck, we somehow managed to bring the fish to the boat for a picture without wrapping the raft around a logjam or otherwise having an accident.
Most people will look at that picture and say something like, “nice fish” or “I’ve caught bigger ones.” In their 2-second assessment, they could never have contemplated the weeks of planning and preparation that led up to that ear-to-ear grin.
In much the same way, it can be tempting to look at the success of a team, a department or an organization and just see the fish that they’re holding up. That picture is one small moment of time that may hold within it weeks, months, or years of careful planning and preparation.
In a world where we are surrounded by pictures of the “ta-da” moment, the finished product, the happy ending, we can easily overlook everything that led up to those moments. However, it’s the careful planning, the painful preparations, and the often-dull cadence of execution that make those moments possible.
Here’s to the mundane practice of careful planning and detailed follow up. I’ve seen it make the difference between a company that grows and thrives and one that languishes. I’ve seen it make the difference between a successful system implementation and an ERP go-live date that keeps getting pushed back. It’s easy to say that business is hard, and companies sometimes languish, through no fault of their own. It’s easy to say that most technology implementations are behind schedule and over budget. It’s easy to say that the fish just weren’t biting that day or that the kids and the dog didn’t make for ideal fishing conditions on the raft. All of those things could be true, but my favorite fishing hat goes off to the people in every organization who quietly plan and prepare without fanfare or accolades knowing just how good it will feel when that plan comes together as they watch that Yellowstone Cutthroat emerge from the depths and engulf their fly.