Lewis & Clark – Your Best Business Heros

Maps are over rated.

Don’t look at IBM, Starbucks or Facebook to see how to start and grow a business successfully. The adventures of pioneers Lewis & Clark 208 years ago are the prototype for all of us. Things don’t often work out as we planned. Most often what happens instead is the good stuff.

In May of 1804, Lewis & Clark were given the mission by President Jefferson of finding a water passage from St. Louis to the Pacific ocean. How they approached fulfilling that mission is one of the best business start up examples in history.

Lewis and Clark were masters at planning as you go – what we call the 2.1 Planning Process. They only knew 2.1 things:
1) Where are we? – St. Charles (St. Louis)
2) Where do we want to end up? (the Pacific ocean)
2.1) What are the next few steps? (get a boat, hire a crew, leave)

Just the next few steps
You never get all of step “3)”, which is HOW to get all the way from step 1) to step 2). You only get “2.1)”. Traditional business planning teaches us that HOW you get all the way from 1) to 2) should be planned before you leave. But it’s voodoo, nonsense and fortune telling.

Just like Lewis & Clark, we never get all of step three, and you definitely don’t get it before you leave the dock. All we get is 2.1 – the next few steps.

On the third day of the trip, Lewis and Clark’s main vessel nearly capsized which would have ended the trip. Their experience even on waters others had traveled before was vastly different. Sound familiar? The other guy’s business experience won’t be yours – don’t let him tell you how it should go.

Lewis & Clark planned for the first few miles and could only guess at what they needed to take with them beyond that. All they could do is plan the next few steps and get moving.

Movement beats planning
They took off with 38 men and three boats but could have easily taken 1,000 men and 100 boats. Looking back from the future, we know this wouldn’t have helped them, and all that over-planning would have in fact made it even harder to move quickly, support such a large contingency and survive the winters.

This is where we miss it big time – over-planning before we even get moving. Lewis & Clark only figured out what they needed as each new obstacle presented itself. After planning as best they could for the first few steps, they simply had to be willing to make constant and quick adjustments or they would have perished. Every business has to have the same willingness to get moving and take soundings as you go.

Long-range planning doesn’t work
If you read the adventures of Lewis & Clark it reads like everything from a sappy novel to a National Lampoon comedy to an Indiana Jones movie. No business plan would have uncovered 1/100th of what actually happened.

They thought it would take 12 months, but 2 1/2 years later they stumbled back into St. Louis where people had long since written them off as dead. They thought they would float in big boats all the way to the Pacific but ended up in wagons, then canoes, on horses, walking, back in canoes, back on horses and wagons, all the while hoping they would find locals who they could trade with to get these things. They were making the whole thing up as they went along.

On they way back, only one month from the safety of St. Louis, Lewis was shot in the touche by the near-sighted, blind-in-one-eye Private Cruzatte who thought he was an elk. You just can’t make this stuff up. And you can’t plan for it either.

Pursue the first thing to find the real thing
Businesses almost always find what they will succeed at by failing at their first objective. Lewis & Clark had one main objective, find a navigable passage from the midwest to the Pacific Ocean, connecting the Mississippi to western oceanic trade. They utterly failed in their main objective. Yet pursuing that objective led them to multiple huge successes; mapping thousands of miles of land, treaties with Indians, identifying and naming hundreds of plant and animal species and opening up a whole new land for exploration. They gave courage to a whole generation who would follow in their steps, and rough maps to begin the journey.

And as with any business, those who followed the same route as Lewis & Clark had entirely different adventures. No two businesses can follow the same plan, even in the same industry.

Move the boat, then make the map
But the best correlation between Lewis & Clark’s adventure and your business is the answer to this question:

When did they get their maps?

The answer? When they got back.

Take the first step, then do it again and again
The best way for you to know how your business will unfold is to know exactly where you want to go, leave the dock and get moving, be flexible and adaptable, make it up as you go along, and grab the opportunities as they unfold. The thing you thought would be your main business will almost certainly grow into something you could have never seen from the dock.

Don’t know what to do to get all the way from here to there? Figure out what the next step is, even if it is a guess, and do it. Then do it again and again. Always know exactly where you want to end up, and take a thousand first steps to get there.

We usually find the good stuff by wading through the muck we thought was the good stuff. A map would take all the fun out of it. You’ll get your maps when you’re done.