How now? Chose a shovel, log, or axe

You’re brilliant, you really are. Smile real big. Because you know what the future should look like, and people are bought in. But before the parades launch and the confetti flies, you have to answer “How?” And fast. And right.

How do you make it to your envisioned future state? The shovel, log, and axe is a simple metaphor to make your decisions about how to proceed more clear, conscious, and more likely correct.

Because even with the right destination, choosing the wrong path can mean you end up… well, you end up Pit Creek without a shaddle.

Okay, here comes the metaphor…

Let’s say you do come to a river. That destination you’re leading to is on the other side. You’ve got to cross the river. You can go over it, can’t go under it, so yes, you have to go through it. And with you is — you guessed it! — a shovel, a log, and an axe.

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The Shovel

The shovel is the work you could do to dig up a boat that you know lays under the ground. This quite literally represents sunk costs. You might have built this boat, and maybe it’s a very lovely boat in your mind, but to get it to cross the river you have to put in a lot of work to dig it out and who knows if it’s still fit to cross the river.

The adage says “sunk costs are sunk costs.” You shouldn’t make decisions about the future based on past investments, because a dollar spent on making that sunk cost work for you might go farther and yield more if put into a brand new solution.

But then comes human nature. You loved that boat you built! And we all suffer from loss avoidance and the desire to be seen as committed to what we said was right in the past (aka, commitment theory).

Using the shovel may be the right answer, but you first have to admit that’s what you’re doing. Then you need to make a conscious and unemotional decision from the future-back, not the past-forward.

The Log

The log is a simple tool. It. floats and, with some hard kicking, you can make your way across the river. Oh, and you’ll get wet doing it.

The log is a process more than a system. If you need to cross the river again, you’ll be getting wet again and your efficiency will not improve all that much. The log is a slog.

The log could be just the ticket to get to your destination. You may not need to cross the river twice, it could be once and done. Who needs a pretty boat when good enough is good enough? You just need to admit this is the approach you’re taking, so you avoid investing in a permanent team or capital investments that just don’t match your get ‘er done approach.

The Axe

And finally, you could build something new. Chop up that log with your axe. Maybe fell a few trees in a nearby forest. Then build yourself a bridge.

The axe represents building something new, and building a system. You and others could cross the river as much as you needed. It’ll take work, but oh man, won’t it be perfect for this river!

But be honest, because it might not become the bridge you have in your mind; while you could keep working on it, once it’s ready for crossing, the likelihood of continued improvement lessens, that is unless you can charge a tool on your bridge — does your bridge make money on its own?


Metaphor, schmetaphor

Okay, that’s clever and the tools reminds me a bit of that Minecraft game, but who cares? Well, I’ve started to use the shovel, log, and axe to label the kinds of decision we seem to be making and make sure we consider the alternatives. And once a decision is made, the metaphor can make sure we stay true to the type of decision made and don’t try, say, swimming with that log while digging.

User beware

As with all metaphors, you can extend this one and break it. I’m sure they’re are other types of decisions too. The value isn’t the perfect metaphor. The value is raising the consciousness about the decisions and investments we make to get to an envisioned destination. Because without it, you may never arrive and instead just end up in the drink.


Brandon Schauer uses these metaphors at Capital One as the Head of Enterprise Design. Join the team!