We Know the Way – The Power of WayFinding

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Check out Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i’s song “We Know the Way” from the Moana soundtrack. Its been on my playlist since I saw the movie with my then 8 year old in 2016. It introduced me to the term wayfinding.

Wayfinding is the ancient Polynesian craft of navigating the wide expanses of the Pacific ocean using primarily observation of the environment around you, stars in the sky and an oral tradition of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Using this technique, mostly devoid of mechanical navigation equipment, the Polynesians would make voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean for trade and to discover new islands to inhabit.

My job title is ambiguous, transformation program manager. I get asked a lot what I do, usually on conference calls where everyone is put on the spot to introduce themselves and ‘what they do’. I often stumble over the introduction and depending on my mood the ‘what I do’ part is either too short or too long winded. What I am actually picturing in my mind when I respond, is me at the bow of a catamaran, in the middle of the Pacific ocean, pointing at the horizon. What I usually end up saying is something like, “I program manage the talent acquisition transformation process, blah, blah, blah“. I wish I could use Wayfinder as my title, it sounds so much more inspiring and adventurous, but alas transformation program manager is as close as I can get in corporate America. If instead of saying something lame, like I always do, I wish I could just pause and let this song do the talking for me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bum4936KgOo

We read the wind and the sky, when the sun is high. I trend spot. I use my observational skills to observe what is happening in the environment around me and adjacent to me. In practical terms it means I listen to people. I read everything I can get my hands on. I ask questions and probe deeper to understand not just what is happening, but why, what caused it, what and who it will benefit. I work to take these things happening in the world around me, synthesize them down and transform them into ideas that spark innovation.

We sail the length of sea on the ocean breeze. I move. I know that forward momentum requires moving. I am unafraid of long distances, because I know that if I have a picture of where I want to go, every small step forward can get us closer. I subscribe to the stop talking and do something school. I know that if I don’t chart a course and move forward, but instead spend too much time tinkering around building plans two things are likely to happen. One I will get lapped by the competition and two I will be burdened by too much planning baggage to allow me to easily pivot when the wind changes. And trust me the wind will change and change again.

At night we name every star. We know where we are. We know who we are, who we are. I know my customers, their journeys, my organizations goals and desired actions for them to take and what motivates them. I am an experience designer, and to truly design the future experience, I need to know the current experience exceptionally well. I spend time to find out what is working and what is not for our customers.

We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we row. I purposelly direct the organization to one island at a time. I create attainable goals and set the steps in motion for the organization to reach them. I know that if I try and chart the entire journey at one time, I will overwhelm the team I am bringing along with me, creating fear and uncertainty in our ability to be successful. Purposeful small wins create forward momentum and an appetite to continue on further to the next goal.

We keep our island in our mind, and when it’s time to find home, we know the way. I provide focus and align the organization on a common intent. I create a common language and vision of success that everyone on the transformation journey can understand and articulate to others. I ensure everyone not only knows what we are intending but why, so when faced with the moments when they have to make choices or decisions they make the choices that drive us toward our common goals. I keep everyone rowing in the same direction.

We are explorers reading every sign. I push the organization into uncharted territory and then I observe. I watch and listen to how the organization shifts, how moods wax and wane, how customers respond, how inputs and outputs vary. Organizations are complex organisms, every shift or change has downstream and upstream implications and seeing what is happening and connecting the dots is important to charting each move and keeping us on track.

We tell the stories of our elders in the never ending chain. I tell the stories of the organization. Some of the stories are of the past and how actions create positive and negative outcomes, so the teams can learn from them and design better alternatives. Sometimes the stories are from the present and serve as a mirror to show the organization what they are achieving and allow them to reflect on their impact and iterate and alter their course as needed. Sometimes I tell the stories of the organization’s successes to others, so that the organization can see their successes reflected in the comments and recognition of those they respect and learn from. Nothing is as powerful for individuals who have been in the trenches of change then to see the positive impact of their work reflected back to them by those outside their team. It serves as much needed validation and increases trust and desire to continue our journey.

Like the ancient Polynesian’s I am most comfortable in the ocean. Thier’s was the thousands of miles of vastness of the Pacific. For me the ocean is the vastness of never ending opportunity to innovate. I’m comfortable in my ocean because I trust I can find my way. Wayfinding is powerful and when applied with skill opens up an unlimited potential for any organization.

We Know the Way lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company

Songwriters: Lin-Manuel Miranda / Opetaia Tavita Foa’i

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