Taking The Road Less Travelled

I’m currently reading a book written by Gary Erickson, the founder and CEO of Clif Bar & Co. Titled “Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar & Co., Gary shares his experience setting up and running his company. What I really liked was how he draws parallels between his passions for the outdoors with his experience running a business.

In Chapter 4 titled “White Road/Red Road (A philosophy for life and business)”, Erickson shared his experience cycling over a thousand miles through major European passes from France to Switzerland and Italy. In that chapter, Gary raised two very important principles that were applicable to innovation and entrepreneurship – both integral in my own life.

1.       The importance of having the right map

2.       The importance of knowing which type of road to travel

In this post, I will summarise the lessons learnt, and how we can learn from its wisdom.

The importance of having the right map

Gary’s story in Chapter 4 came about when he started his trip with a map that covered large areas of Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, but later realised that most of the roads marked on the map were in red. They soon discovered that these were busy freeways and major roads where bicycles were not allowed on because of the danger and risk. As they travelled, they realised that the map also did not mark the many small roads they either passed or travelled on. When they bought a new and more detailed map, they saw the abundance of route choices available to get to their destination. Leveraging on the new information, they were able to make decisions that got them to their destination – in the way they wanted.

The importance of knowing which type of road to travel

On the new Michelin map that Gary bought, it was clearly indicated the roads that were busy with heavy traffic (RED), roads that were well-travelled but not as busy as the red roads (YELLOW), and the quiet, narrow country roads that branched off the red and yellow roads (WHITE).

Below is a brief summary of how Gary drew parallels to the different paths taken by business:

Traveling on the Red Road


Busy, Fast, Direct-www.freefoto.com

Travelling on the red road means that your destination is predetermined – which evidently takes away the need to take risks or to find new roads. With conventional wisdom built from the many who have travelled the same broad road, there is far less risk to be taken.

However, being on the red road comes with lots of distraction in the form of noise and the dangers posed by external factors. Very often, red road companies also have a risk adverse culture and also do not cultivate a culture of trust or honesty. After all, all secondary agenda must suit the primary one.

RED Road Characteristic: Company on the RED Road
  • Wide
  • Fast
  • Direct
  • Places risk in the hands of others
  • About the destination
  • Key business agenda: Financial gain, and Maximising shareholder value
  • Employees and other non-profit oriented goals are secondary.
  • Relies on the market, shareholders, the board, advisors and conventional wisdom in decision making

Traveling on the White Road


Adventure, Explore New Boundaries, Creative - http://www.freefoto.com

Companies that travel on the white road enjoy the adventure that comes with challenging norms, exploring new routes and doing things better, but differently. There really isn’t an ultimate destination even though there are goals to meet and plans to make. White road companies also travel lighter and have a simpler structure, which also becomes a driving force to do more with less – leading to innovative thoughts and methods.

To be a white road company, there must be a culture of trust, sense of humour and the ability to be open to change.

WHITE Road Characteristic: Company on the White Road
  • Undeveloped, not often traveled
  • Narrow
  • Presents surprises – good and bad
  • Places risk in your own hands
  • About the journey
  • Key Business Agenda: Upholds the corporate value to make a positive impact on all stakeholders, including sustaining shareholders, employees, partners, customers, the community, and perhaps, even the planet’s well-being and interests.
  • Sustains core corporate values and ideals that don’t change
  • Decision making based on what the customer wants

Making sense of maps and roads

The Red and White Road philosophy is really two different sides of a coin. There isn’t a better or worse, or right or wrong model.

If you are an employee in an organisation, you’ll need to work for the right type of organisation that supports your needs and personality – if you want to enjoy your work, and not just “work”.

I’ve had the luxury of experiencing what it is like to work in large and small organisations. I can say that while I enjoyed the financial and welfare perks of working for a large organisation, there wasn’t much leeway to break away from the norm to explore new roads. Progress was linear at best.

I realised that through my experience, the environment I thrived best was when there was ample opportunity to be creative and push boundaries, transparency to see the impact of my work on the organisations progress, and to be a part of the organisation, not a cog in the system. In other words, I would be happy in a white road type organisation.

If you are a business owner, you’ll need to know what you really want for, and from, the business. I’ve had savvy business people whose advice is to build and sell the business to recoup my investment and retire early with a nice fortune that I could also use to build another business.

I balked. Mainly because my business plan was different. Adonai Group would be a business that would sustain my needs and personal goals for my entire life time. Just as important, I had envisioned Adonai Group to be a vehicle that positively impacts the lives of its stakeholders – employees, clients, partners, suppliers. My primary agenda for Adonai Group is not about dollars and cents – but about building a legacy, and everything else serves this agenda.

Since the day I started the company, I’ve enjoyed the process of growth – personally and professionally. Mistakes are painfully unforgiving to the coffers, but these mistakes form a priceless insight and determination to do better, and to be more innovative.

As for companies, you’ll need to know if travelling on the red or white road serves the primary corporate agenda. At the end of the day, whether your organisation is on the red or white road one, just make sure you get the right map.


About Michelle Ling

Michelle is the founder of Adonai Group Pte Ltd - a boutique business consultancy that advises organisations on organizational sustainability.
This entry was posted in Book Review, General, Innovation, Startup, Two Cents Worth. Bookmark the permalink.

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