What Cheryl Strayed’s 1,178 Mile Hike Can Show Us About Performance Management

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Agile Performance on the Pacific Crest Trail

When Cheryl Strayed was twenty-six she walked 1,178 miles alone in the wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail which she documents in her book Wild. Her goal was to hike from the Tehachapi Pass in the Mojave Desert to Ashland, Oregon. Her expectations were that she would find herself and at the same time be changed. She achieved all of that with a lot of grit and determination, and a little help from agile performance.

Agile performance is an emerging approach to employee performance management that focuses on improving performance rather than documenting it. It takes the principles of agile software development and adapts them for use with employee performance.

Here are the basics of agile performance and how they helped Cheryl on her journey.

Two concepts are keep it simple and give and receive ongoing feedback. At the beginning of the trip Cheryl packs her backpack Monster with so many “obviously needed’ and “in-case-of emergency necessary” items that she can barely lift it off the floor. She struggles with its weight until she reaches Kennedy Meadows where she gets some help from Albert, a fellow PCT hiker who she met earlier on the trail. Albert takes each item from Monster and decides if it stays or goes. Through feedback, he simplifies what she needs. When he’s done it’s light enough so she can “leap into the air … only an inch off the ground but at least it could be done.”

Two more agile performance concepts are you control the process and converse with a coach at regular intervals. Cheryl planned her hike with a number of check-in points along the way: Kennedy Meadows, Sierra City, Castle Crags, and more. It’s during these breaks that she receives the resupply boxes she packed for herself in the mail, buys a Snapple, and talks with other hikers. At Kennedy Meadows her resupply box contains an ice ax which she didn’t know how to use, and admits that she is “far more likely to impale” herself with it than use it to prevent herself “from sliding off the side of a mountain.” Another hiker she met along the trail, Greg coaches her on how to use it, watching and critiquing her technique as she practiced against a muddy slope that fills in for the ice.

The last concept is set, review, and adjust near expectations. Cheryl’s goal is to hike to Ashland, Oregon. However, during the hike she learns from several people including Greg that the Sierra’s are “completely socked in” and that “lots of hikers have given up entirely because there was a record snowpack”. With this knowledge, she adjusts her goal to bypass the Sierra’s and move her end destination 500 miles north to a bridge ”at the Oregon-Washington border with the grandiose name the Bridge of the Gods.”

Now you might notice that although Cheryl’s journey was extraordinary, the agile performance concepts I presented aren’t. In fact they’re common sense ways of improving performance that all of us have used at one time or another. What’s extraordinary is that companies who introduce agile performance to their performance management process see improvements in employee engagement and retention, and the success of their business. Over the past several years, more and more companies are using these concepts to improve the journey of their employees as they traverse the challenging terrain of their jobs.


Quoted excerpts from Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, Random House, New York, 2013

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