Wayfinding in the wild and in business

By Sonja Blignaut

I don’t know where I am going, but I know exactly how to get there.” – Boyd Varty

In September 2023, we had the privilege of hosting master tracker Alex van den Heever on our monthly beCOOL Community conversation.  This was an extremely rich conversation, exploring the synergies between our world of wayfinding uncertainty in business and the ancient practice of wildlife tracking.  Alex and his partner Renias Mhlongo are regarded as two of the best trackers in the world and run an academy where they train others in this ancient practice.

Tim Ingold defines Wayfinding (or Waysfinding as we like to think of it) as “Knowing as you go, not before you go”.  During our conversation, it became clear that such wayfinding is a core aspect of tracking, where you simply cannot know everything before you set out.  As Alex rightly pointed out, “there is always variability in nature, so uncertainty is part of the job”.  

Being a tracker might seem quite idyllic, and it might not immediately seem like business leaders and trackers have much in common.  However, trackers often face many simultaneous pressures: accompanying (often naïve) people into a dangerous and uncertain environment while under pressure to perform and provide specific sightings.

So how do they do it?

Alex shared the following process with us:

  1. Find the track

There might be hundreds of potential tracks to follow, trackers need to cut through the noise to find the spoor (track) that matters.   This requires discernment and patience. A trap here is a bias for action, i.e. not taking the time to assess all the possibilities before acting.  In business strategy, do we have the ability and the patience to cut through the noise to find the signals (risk or opportunity) that matter?   In our experience, the ever-increasing pace of the corporate context undermines our ability to make prudent choices. (find out more – slowness blog)

2. Follow the track

“Wayfinding rests on being in the present moment, staying still, and becoming calibrated to the signs.” – Spiller et al.

Trackers stay present to their Curiosity and employ all their senses to attune to the signs around them.  They are paying attention to the track on the ground and other signs, like broken twigs, bird alert calls, etc.  Here, a trap is to become hyper-focused on one thing (e.g. the track) and miss other helpful signs – or become so focused on the lion track on the ground that you forget to look up and blunder into a dangerous situation, i.e. the lion!  Alex made a distinction between focused and diffuse thinking, highlighting that we need both.

What signs are we attuned to in business as we engage in strategic waysfinding?  Are we scanning broadly enough, e.g., do we know what is happening on the edges of our industries?  Are we aware of weak signals?  Do we pay attention to “alarm calls” or ignore them?  Are we so hyper-focused on meeting targets that we miss risks and opportunities right before us?

3. Lose and regain the track

Trackers know that losing the track is inevitable.  When that happens, it is critical to be honest, especially with yourself.  Denial is the trap here, as it is impossible to get back on track when you can’t admit to losing it.

This is probably one of the hardest things for business leaders – to admit when they have made a strategic error and need to pivot or start again.  We live in a world where dominant narratives equate competence with being right or knowing.  But just like the trackers, if we cannot admit that we have lost track as soon as we realise it, we make it impossible to get back on track and make things much worse.

4. Close the gap

This is where the tracker’s knowledge and experience truly shine.  Animals like lions move much faster across the landscape than humans can. Often, it is impossible to catch up to them, so the trackers must find a way to close the gap.  To do that, they tap into their knowledge of the landscape and the animal’s behaviour, and they use their imaginative capacity to create a narrative of where the animal might be going and why.  Trackers shift from following the track in the present to a form of anticipation – they attempt to leapfrog the animal to get ahead of it.  For example, they might consider the direction the lions are travelling; they might know that the lions haven’t made a kill recently and remember a herd of Zebra that they saw the night before not too far away.  From this, they might create a narrative that the lions will likely be found stalking the zebra and decide to leave the trail and head over to where they last saw the herd.  It is a form of continuous hypothesis building, adjusting as new signs present themselves.  

Here, hubris is a trap – being overly certain and ignoring what is in front of you, e.g. I know these lions; they always drink water this time of the day.  

In business, how often do we employ our imagination?  Or do we perceive it as soft or immature?  And how often does over-confidence in our previous experience cloud our judgment?  Can we remain Open to new information?  

5. Encounter

Finally, if all goes well it leads to an encounter with the animal.  Master trackers practice gratitude and remain in wonder when this happens.  It can be easy for the ego to get in the way here, but a good encounter is never certain in the ever-present uncertainty of the natural world.  In business, do we practice gratitude and celebrate our wins, or do we allow our egos to get in the way?  Do we value the journey or simply chase the next target?

Trackers, and business leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty, which means that they need to be COOL:

  • to COURAGEOUSLY make choices, follow a particular track or strategic path and have the courage to admit when they have lost the track and need to pivot.
  • be OPEN to a wide variety of information, to being in continuous change and uncertainty and to being vulnerable and admitting when things go wrong
  • to OBSERVE their own tendencies to hubris or ego so that they don’t become trapped.  AND remain situationally aware, observing the various environmental signs to enable them to track an animal or strategy effectively.
  • And finally, they practice LIGHTNESS – they don’t take themselves too seriously, they use their imagination as well as their knowledge, and they never lose their sense of gratitude, awe and wonder. 

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Learn more about Alex and Renias here.

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