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Desire Paths: Detouring to Success

Desire Paths: Detouring to Success

Sep 2018

Early in my career I was involved with the design of some public spaces. During this time an old designer stated that we should not design the footpaths, but grass the whole area. Then, after 6 months of use we should install footpaths where the foot traffic had worn down the grass. This concept has stuck with me ever since.

The problem for many of us is that we have built and constructed beautiful footpaths. We have developed successful organisations. Ones that have worked. Ones that we feel comfortable with. Ones that give us a sense of definition – we know who we are. Yet, we are having trouble gaining enough clients. Or, we are having trouble engaging volunteers. These frustrations are very real. It is tough.

I have worked closely with client driven organisations where business has plateaued, they haven’t made any real progress. I’ve also witnessed similar frustrations within volunteer driven organisations. However, rather than struggling with clients they don’t have enough volunteers. They have a long list of jobs to be completed, but no one to do them. They are becoming overwhelmed by the volume of work and burning out.

In both situations, the clients (and/or the volunteers) are not walking along the designated footpaths that we have predetermined in our minds. It is so frustrating!

It turns out that the concept explained to me by the old designer many years ago has a name – desire paths. Here is a more formal definition of desire paths:

These paths usually represent the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. Width and erosion severity can be indicators of how much traffic a path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed ways take a circuitous route, have gaps, or are non-existent. Excerpt from Wikipedia

So, if we are frustrated with our lack of clients (and/or volunteers) we must ask: have they been detouring our footpaths by using their own desire path? How do we see where the grass has been worn down?

The answer is simple, but often very hard to see. Clients show us where their desire paths are by what they buy (if they buy at all). Volunteers show us where their desire paths are by where they donate their time and energy.

Here are some additional keys to help you see where the grass has been worn down and help you redesign your footpaths.

For client driven organisations;
• Stop defending/selling and start listening. Listen to the reviews, posts and star ratings you receive. Listen to how your clients describe what you do.
• Listen to client objections and start innovating together.
• Consider developing End User (or Customer Led) Innovation methods.

For volunteer driven organisations;
• Create space and let people see the gaps.
• Let things drop off the list and watch to see if anyone notices.
• Look to build flexibility within how you operate.

The aim is to use client and volunteer desire paths as a detour to organisational success.

At Joseph Consulting we work with organisations to help them discover the desire paths around them, then help develop strategies and processes that will bring success. Please call Joseph Consulting to discuss how we can support you.


Jason Gallagher

Joseph Consulting

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