Friday, June 7, 2013

Ten Lessons Hiking the Inca Trail Teaches You About Your Business

 By Jim Verdonik
I'm an attorney with Ward and Smith PA.  I also write a column about business and law for American Business Journals, have authored multiple books and teach an eLearning course for entrepreneurs.  You can reach me at or  Or you can check out my eLearning course at
or or purchase my books at

What are you doing this summer?

I'm analyzing business case studies.  My first was in Peru on a four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with my daughter (JJ).
I have a theory that all things in life can teach you how to run your business better.

Because business is about people.  Psychology is the fundamental tool of business.  The more you learn about people (customers, competitors, vendors, advisers, bosses, employees and contractors) the more tools you have to be successful.

That's why everything we do in life can teach us valuable business lessons.  Of course, you can't learn anything, if you walk around wearing a blindfold or keep yourself locked in a closet.  You have to get out into the world and look and listen to learn anything.  And remember, that talking only helps you learn, if you stimulate other people to talk to you.  Monopolizing the conversation impairs your ability to learn.  Maybe that's why people who talk continuously seem to know so little.
So, what lessons did I learn from looking and listening on my journey into pre-Columbian South America along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu?

But before I answer that question, let me note that this article focuses on the struggles of the trip, because business is about facing challenges, winning some and minimizing your losses when you aren’t successful.  Despite the challenges of the trip, we also had a lot of fun. 
·         We saw glacier covered mountains that looked like Switzerland. 
·         We walked through lush rain forests where the tree canopy blocked the sky. 
·         We walked along mountain streams where the sound of the rushing water energized our spirits.
·         We climbed in solitude over the ruins of an ancient civilization scattered along the Inca Trail far from the crowds at Machu Picchu.
·         We met wonderful people from Peru and around the world.
·         We enjoyed the five star central square in the former Inca capital of Cusco that matches the best town squares in Tuscany and France.
But we often learn more from our struggles than from our pleasures.  So, let's jump into the challenges of this trek and the lessons these challenges teach us.
Business Rule Number 1 - Humility. 
I like to think of myself as a pretty fit guy for my age.  Six hours of exercise a week and a decent muscle mass index.
What could be so hard about trekking 26 miles in four days when you regularly run 5 miles?
Alas, three things conspire to make the Inca Trail more difficult than your typical 26-mile hike:
·         Altitude – thin air literally knocks you on your butt.
·         Backpacks – extra weight slows you down and tires you out.
·         Stairs – the Inca Trail has thousands of stairs made of stones.  Some of the stairs are six inches high.  Others are a foot tall or more.  One afternoon we descended approximately 3,000 stairs.

Finaly Reaching the Top of
Dead Woman's Pass (13,776 Feet) 
(Day 2)

The combination of these three factors meant a life-long exerciser like me had to bow to nature and limp along as best I could.  At the end of days 2 and 3 of the hike, I had just enough gas left in my tank to crawl into my tent to sleep, wake up for dinner and then force myself to eat to refuel for the next day's journey.  I would say that days 2 and 3 on the Inca Trail have roughly the equivalent effect on your body as running two marathons on consecutive days.  I lost 5 pounds in four days.

 Of course, you face similar challenges when you start and run a business.  It's usually much more difficult than you think.  Whatever preparations you make, circumstances are likely to make your business journey harder than you trained for.  The American military has a slogan: "Train like we fight.  Fight like we train."  That's the primary difference between professionals and amateurs. 
We amateurs (whether in business or hiking) have to deal with our unexpected struggles with humility.  Don't bother entering the contest, if you have to finish first all the time.  Sometimes, surviving to start again the next day is victory.

Business Rule Number 2 - Learning Humility Clears the Way for Making Progress.
My new found humility reminded of the connection between failure and success and the concept of "Creative Destruction," which Joseph Schumpeter (an Austrian-American economist) popularized in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942).  "Creative Destruction" describes how periodic down turns in the business cycle clear the way for economic innovation.
So it is with destruction of the body caused by a four-day war of attrition hiking the Inca Trail.  Instead of big ideas that have no connection with one another, you focus on very simple physical actions that are necessary to complete the goal of finishing the Inca Trail in one piece.  Here's what the last two miles of our climb to Dead Woman's Pass was like:
·         Walk  25 to 50 yards uphill toward the pass.
·         Rest.
·         Walk another 25 to 50 yards.
·         Rest.
·         Repeat dozens of times for approximately two miles until you achieve your goal.
In the luxury of our civilization, business leaders often fall to the temptation that big thoughts are the path to overnight success.  That's true in some cases, but its like winning the lottery.  Most often, success results from successfully implementing a strategy over and over and over again.  Humility helps you to discipline yourself to do that.
But, what about creativity and innovation? 
How does plodding along the trail step by step spark creativity and innovation?

Enjoying the Top of Second Mountain Pass (Day 3)
Physical activity has some things in common with meditation.  Focusing for a long time on a limited number of physical actions frees up parts of your mind to become open to bigger concepts.  By focusing on avoiding twisting your ankle on each rock step as you walk, you eventually begin to understand how it all fits together. 

Stopping and resting provides opportunities to look around you at the mountain passes, the glacier covered mountain peaks, the lush rain forests and the mountain streams. When every step is a battle as you struggle to suck in more oxygen from the thin air, you appreciate what you are seeing and feeling more than if you are taking a casual stroll.
Business Rule Number 3 - What Goes Up Must Come Down. 
Having reached the summit of Dead Woman's Pass at 13,776 feet above sea level, we celebrated and rested for about twenty minutes and then began the process of descending the other side of the pass.  Over the next day and a half, we descended between six and seven thousand feet in altitude primarily by climbing down several thousand stone steps.
This raises the issue that many successful businesses fail to consider.  What is success?  Once you achieve success, what do you do next?  You can't stay at the top of the pass forever.
·         It's too cold.
·         The air is too thin.
·         You can't carry enough food and water on your way up that you can afford to linger too long at the top.

Map Showing Altitude Gain and Loss

This is an issue many new businesses face after achieving initial success.  How do you consolidate your success to withstand the inevitable counterattack by competitors?  What's your exit strategy?  If you don't plan and execute your descent carefully, you and your business could wander aimlessly and fall off a cliff in the middle of the night.


Business Rule Number 4 – Leadership Means Creating Teams that Work Together
The best leaders create teams where team members help one another.  Our guide Richard was such a leader.  Richard has been through the Inca Trail literally hundreds of times during his ten -year career as a guide.  He could probably do the entire 26 miles of the Inca Trail in two days by himself walking backwards.  But sprinting through the Inca Trail alone isn't his job.  His job was to get six Americans, two Argentines and one Brazilian and their porters safely and efficiently through the four-day journey in the wilderness. 
Richard is a professional guide.  He often referred to the Inca Trail his office.
The first thing a professional like Richard acknowledges is that it's more a one-man job.  To achieve the goal, Richard had to motivate these total strangers to work as a team to help one another. 
Richard wasted no time in building teamwork.  It started with teaching the group a magic phrase.  Sorry, I can't tell you the magic phrase.  Richard is entitled to his trade secrets.  Then, as soon as we started the first and the easiest day of the trek, Richard repeatedly talked about how we were all a family.  Richard continually reinforced the sense of family – especially at meal times.
The net result of all this psychological preparation by Richard was that by day 2 of our trek which was the most physically demanding part of our trek as we gained 3,000 feet in elevation, the strongest hikers in the group often waited for the slowest hikers to catch up.  That gave us slower hikers the encouragement we needed to complete our journey.
So, what happens with your business team?  Do your best performers race ahead to maximize their compensation?  Or do your best people teach other team members how to improve their performance?
If your people aren't functioning as a team, whose fault is it?  Did you hire a bunch of selfish people?  Or did you hire normal people, but you failed to take on the difficult leadership role of building a team that works together? 

Our Porters Made It All Possible
Carrying Tents, Food Etc.

You might ask yourself: "Why should I encourage my best performers to slow down a little and help other team members?"  Let's look at this from a strictly return on investment (ROI) point of view.  If one of the hikers in Richard's group gives in to altitude sickness or just to being tired and decides he can't complete the trek, it creates a problem for the whole team.  You can't just let a sick person wander home without help from the middle of a wilderness.  You might send a porter or two to help them get back to civilization safely.  That leaves you with fewer porters to carry the tents, food and other items.  The whole expedition suffers when you start losing the weaker members.
Of course, your business isn't an expedition.  But by encouraging your best performers to take a little time to share their experience and expertise, you can improve the overall performance of your entire team.  You do the math.  If your top performer decreases output by 10%, because of time sent helping others, but nine other people on your team improve their output 10% each, is your business stronger or weaker? 

Hiking Team from
Argentina, Brazil and USA
Led By Peruvian Guides and Porters
Refuels at Mealtime
To make this work, you have to promote people who are good teachers.  Some people can't transfer their skills to others.  And you have to compensate your top performers for taking the time to transfer their skills and help other team members perform better.  In business, you get what you pay for.  If you only pay people for their individual performance, don't expect your people to divert their time and effort to things you aren't willing to pay for – like helping their teammates improve.  They logically assume that your nice words about teamwork are just that – nice words.  Compensation plans determine what you truly value.  What do your business' compensation plans communicate to your people about what you and your busininess.

Business Rule Number 5 – One Technology Leads to other Technologies.
When you are climbing up and down thousands of stairs built five or six hundred years ago, you sometimes think about the people who built all these stairs.  I won't tell you everything I thought about the Incas and their thousands of stairs.  My mother taught me if you can't say something nice about the dead, don't say anything.
But facing all those stone stairs, you naturally ask yourself the question: WHY?
Why would people spend so much time and effort building so many stairs on the sides of mountains?
The Incas were empire builders.  They wanted ways to connect their thousand mile long empire and effectively govern it from their capital in Cusco.  Roads allowed the Incas to transfer people and food from different parts of their vast empire when needed, including in battling neighboring tribes.  So, roads gave the Incas a competitive advantage over rival tribes.
But why build all the stairs?  Why not build roads and paths with gradual inclines like in Europe? 
The answer is a good example of how one technology or tool influences the other technologies and tools we create.

Stone Steps Along Inca Trail
The First of 3,000 Down (Day 3)
The Incas had no animals like oxen, mules and horses that were strong enough to pull carts and wagons like they did in Europe.  South America's famous llamas just don't have the strength to pull heavy carts and wagons up mountain roads.  If you don't have carts and wagons and animals to pull them, roads that have gradual inclines aren't a necessity.  So, the absence of some technologies or tools (like animals and wagons with wheels), influenced what types of roads the Incas built.
Is your business repeating the mistakes the Incas made?  Is your business investing too much in infrastructure that will soon become outdated as technology changes?  Stay ahead of the technology curve.  It's not enough to just know the technologies that are available today.  Make sure the technology your business will invest in today either will last a long time or is modular and can be replaced or upgraded at low cost.  Someone in your business or a consultant needs to know the technologies that are being developed that could make your current business infrastructure as obsolete as roads made of steps in a world that moves on wheels.