Pave The Cow Paths

The way we are told to do things isn’t always the only (or best, or worst) way to do them. It can be true for our internal processes as well as for how clients respond to our products and services. Despite alternate routes often being obvious, we don’t always talk about them. Our future relies on us having these conversations.

On my college campus, there were dirt paths across otherwise beautiful green lawns where students would walk. The college had sidewalks around the perimeter, but who walks around something they can much easier walk across? During vacations, maintenance would reseed, post “keep off the grass” signs, and do the best to restore the greenery, but the dirt paths always came back. Why, with perfectly lovely sidewalks, would the students trash the lawns? Why, with perfectly obvious paths, would the school pave only the perimeter? Both are useful questions with practical applications.

There’s a common design expression called “paving the cow paths.” The concept is that the first roads were paved on trails most heavily traveled by farmers and their cows. These paths had the advantage of just being in the way of the places cows were regularly going. Unfortunately, these same paths also had the disadvantage of being fairly suboptimal for doing anything else with the land. See a map of Boston for an example of how not to lay out a modern city for transit.

Each job has its own ways of getting things done at work. We have client requests, internal workflows, and – shortcuts. When possible, paving the cowpaths to turn shortcuts into officially sanctioned roads can be a real time saver. Paved cow paths can keep us from getting stuck in the metaphorical mud during heavy storms. They’re efficient and proven trails for today’s problems.

Over time, paved cow paths always come with the risk of limiting future progress. We have sunk costs in paths we’re used to traveling, especially once we’ve gone through the trouble of paving them. We also have sunk costs when we’re committed to reseeding over paths despite a clear need for an improved trail. Lastly, we need methods to recognize when we’re ready to completely redesign the transportation system and tear up the paths and the fields altogether. Fields, to cow paths, to paved cow paths, to new systems, and it only starts the metaphor over again (there will be a new shortcut for someone to take, and someone else to eventually legitimize!).

For clients, consider how sending forms in via regular mail, then faxes, and now encrypted emails are like updating paths. Each successive iteration gained efficiency and relegated the old path to history (mostly). As times change, we have to find ways to embrace the new – especially when clients want or expect it. Pave the cow paths, but lay the railroad tracks, and eventually build the highways, city grid and airport. The future will be bigger than whatever we can imagine today. Awareness and observation is the key to progress here.

On my college campus, they eventually found a solution. The fields would always be the space between the buildings and the students would always take the shortcuts, so they finally paved walking paths. It was progress. For our businesses and practices, the same types of information shouldn’t be wasted – we have to look for the trails and turn them into something better. Opportunities are all around us if we just look for how things are getting from here to there.

When it makes sense, pave the cow paths. When we’re ready, take the next step too. Business is about making the journey from here to there better. The businesses that last are the ones that keep getting better.

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