How Cross-Country Skiing Helped Me Understand Strategic Planning

By Tony Des Chenes

I am an avid cross-country skier. When I can get the chance I head up north and hit the trails. I took up the sport as a kid, but time and location made it more and more difficult to get out. I had also taken up downhill skiing, which is a great deal of fun. I had wonderful times taking downhill ski trips with the family to some of our favorite hills in Michigan. But, as I have gotten older I have discovered that my days of racing down the hills may be behind me. For those not familiar with cross country skiing, you are basically skiing or gliding on top of the snow. In most places there are groomed trails which make it much better. It can be a lot of work, however, in the end the feeling of accomplishment is wonderful.

So where does this lead to strategic planning? It all started when my wife and I where skiing at one of our favorite cross-country locations. To describe a productive day of skiing, you need to start with identifying your ability. Have you skied before or are you out for the first time? Next, you need equipment. If you go to the right place to ski they will outfit you with equipment that fits your level of ability. Then there is the trail map; this is the most important part of any cross-country ski trip. If you do not understand the map you can lost or get on a very difficult trail. To me the map is the strategic plan. The map outlines all the trails based on level of difficulty and distance. For instance, for someone who has never cross-country skied, they probably would not go on a five-mile trail with a lot of hills. Instead they would look at a shorter more level trail. All of this is on the map. Strategic plans are maps. The one difference between a strategic plan and cross-country ski map, you probably had more input into the strategic plan.

Having input does not always mean that your plan will take you where you want to go. Just like skiing you need to know your ability and have the right equipment before you can develop the plan and interpret the map. A good example, my wife and I were at one of our favorite cross-country ski locations. We had been coming to this location for years and know the trails well. However, this time we were going to try a different, more difficult trail. The one thing I made sure I had was a map of the trails. As we got about halfway through the trail we came upon a woman and a boy (turned out to be a grandma and grandson). They were lost, and this was the grandson’s first time out. They did not have a map and had ended up on a trail far above their ability and did not know how much further to go. I explained that they were not far from the main trail and gave them my map, so they could see where they were and where they were going. They made it back to the main lodge just fine.

Strategic planning can be just like the lost skiers on the trail. You can start pursuing a project and if you have not planned appropriately, find yourself lost on the trail and in over your head. Having the right plan for the right circumstance will make things easier; however, following the plan and not getting off course is the more difficult thing to do. Remember, know your ability, have the right equipment and follow the plan, it is your map to success.

Tony Des Chenes is a procurement and government affairs consultant at Michigan Legislative Consultants in Lansing, MI, where he specializes in state government procurement. Prior to entering the private sector Mr. Des Chenes held various roles in state government. Mr. Des Chenes earned his master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University and his bachelor’s degree political science from Central Michigan University. He is a member of APMP and a Life member of the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO).