Handrails and Backstops

Orienteering is a sport that practices navigation by map and compass, constantly reassessing your current location and readjusting your course towards your next objective.

The first time I set out, I consulted my friend who is a competitive orienteer. He gave me two mental models to interpret the map for effective navigation across unknown terrain: He told me to find handrails and backstops.


A "handrail" is a terrain feature that runs alongside your prospective route. As long as you keep it on one side and in sight, you can follow it to your goal.


A "backstop"1 is a terrain feature usually perpendicular to travel and just beyond or right at your next waypoint. If you cross the backstop, you've gone too far.

These principles work in my nearby state park… but also apply to more abstract problem terrains.

Effective planning requires identifying your current position in the problem space, and realigning with your desired outcomes. Classifying elements of your domain as "handrails" or "backstops" can speed decision-making and course selection.

Two examples: when working on a front-end performance budget, your current bundle size can be a backstop2. If your bundle size increases, it's time to turn around, you've gone too far. North Star metrics3 (if well constructed) can serve as a handrail. As long as that KPI continues to improve, you are headed in a good direction.

By classifying possible outcomes or KPIs as handrails and backstops, I can give my team the ability to move with autonomy knowing the right direction to sprint... and a safety net to avoid overcommitting.

  1. I've also seen a "backstop" referred to as a "catching feature." Same concept, different name. 

  2. Time and again I hear clients discussing their performance budgets in terms of goals: We’re aiming toward a budget of 250KB uncompressed JavaScript; we hope to be interactive in 2.75s. While it’s absolutely vital that these goals exist and are actively worked toward, this is not part of your budgeting. Your budgeting is actually far, far simpler: 

    Our budget for [metric] is never-worse-than-it-is-right-now.

    Performance Budgets, Pragmatically – CSS Wizardry – Web Performance Optimisation

  3. Custom metrics connected to the humans getting value from your product -- and how they are getting value from your product -- are much more compelling. Our key product bet manifests in the metric, and that transparency is powerful. 

    TBM 32/53: Beyond Generic KPIs - The Beautiful Mess

  • 2022-06-08 11:31:29 -0500
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  • 2021-01-29 10:28:56 -0600
    Remove trailing spaces

  • 2021-01-20 08:52:13 -0600
    Adding `work` tag

  • 2021-01-19 10:29:04 -0600
    New post: Handrails and Backstops