Shoveling the Driveway: Setting Conditions for Success

February 7, 2023

by Stephen T. Messenger

This is our first winter in Wisconsin, and it snows a lot! The first snowfall laid eight inches on the ground, and we dutifully shoveled off the driveway placing heaps of snow on all the edges.

Two days later, three inches fell, and we trudged outside to again push the snow against the previous piles. The next day, more of the same.

An interesting phenominon began to occur. The two-lane driveway slowly became narrower. The heaps of snow we pushed to the side were blocked by the previous, now 18-inch-high mounds.  It was exponentially harder to get the snow up and over last week’s shovel, and our driveway kept decreasing in size.

Our problem, pun intended, was piling up.

Prepping the Objective

Now, this is not a new problem for Wisconsinites—hence why everyone owns snowblowers. You can see the natives with their high-powered machines, ATV’s pushing snow, or their four-wheel drive with a plow on it. They move the snow well off the path and prepare for the next snowfall.

In the Army, they call this prepping the objective. Before attacking a target, military campaigns are preceded by air and artillery strikes to weaken the enemy’s defenses and morale. An example is the 1991 coalition bombing campaign of Iraq which was happening 22 years ago today.

This extensive and well-planned attack lasted 38 days with over 100,000 sorties dropping over 88,500 tons of bombs. Spread across cruise missiles, stealth bombers, smart bombs, and conventional forces, this campaign prepared the way for a follow-on attack.

It targeted Iraqi air capabilities, SCUD launchers, command and control, critical infrastructure, and key targets and made the burden on the ground invasion much less.

The Mounds Only Get Bigger

While the coalition air campaign was brilliant, my driveway shoveling job was not. After every snowfall, the mounds only get bigger as we push them off to the side, and the driveway gets smaller.

This happens to us in our work lives as well. We fail to clear out our inbox or to-do list at the end of the day. Tomorrow, we come in and there’s still work from yesterday. The snowbanks pile up.

That project due next week we put off until… well, next week, thinking we’ll have time, but then a second project appears and we’re scrambling at the last minute to complete multiple tasks. There’s no place to shovel the snow.

And the feedback session we’ve pushed off because it’s going to be uncomfortable can wait until later. Until we realize our employee is making the same mistakes that we haven’t corrected yet, and we end up using our time to fix it. The driveway is becoming narrower.

Look Towards the Future

Luckily, there’s an easy answer for most of this. You have to always be thinking about the future.

In the show How I Met Your Mother, there’s a running joke about how the characters confront tough decisions: “You know who I think can handle a problem like that? Future Ted and Future Marshall.”

Instead of sluffing it off to our future selves, what are the actions we’re taking today that will maximize our options in the future?

In our driveway, it only makes sense to clear off the side—and then some—to make it easier in the future.

In my professional life, I was about to sign a policy for my team that would place restrictions on what people could or couldn’t do. A mentor talked me out of it explaining how I was limiting my future options by laying out explicit guidelines. I was in effect about to narrow my driveway for no reason.

Expanding Time and Decision Space

Good leaders give themselves options in time and space. They stay ahead of the piles by clearing out obstacles, understanding how today’s decisions affect tomorrow’s, and being proactive completing tasks.

They look to the future and not limit their ability to make decisions. And they tackle problems as they arise, not putting them off until tomorrow. This eliminates problems piling up.

I encourage you to see where you’re piling problems and how to plan ahead to set conditions for future success.

And as a final metaphor to ponder over in your spare time, it also helps to own a snowblower!

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4 thoughts on “Shoveling the Driveway: Setting Conditions for Success

  1. It is always good to have a few tasks on your to do list that don’t require any unusual skills or brain power. That way the little voice inside your head, the one that talks to you all day long, can offer up some word of encouragement.


  2. The limitation of a shrinking driveway is a great image for what I have often done to myself by failing to see the connections between seemingly unrelated tasks. When it comes to my time and focus, all my tasks are related, because they all take up discreet space on my driveway (incomplete or poorly completed) or yard (dutifully finished). Thanks Steve.


    1. Jon, I just recently got into sketchnoting. If you’re not familiar, it’s drawing pictures when trying remember information from a speech or other source. Amazingly, when I draw it on paper, the connections become very obvious. Your comment made me think about how I compartmentalize my sketchnotes, when they all relate to each other. Appreciate the build!


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