“You’re just not going to find your way around here very well without making some big adjustments,” Dennis started out, and right away I knew I was in for some uncomfortable observations that were sure to intensify my overall disorientation beyond adjusting to three hours of daylight.

Dennis had married into the Alaskan village and lived in a cabin with his wife and kids out along the river. And despite his many years of residence, he still clearly remembered the experience of shifting fundamental cultural moorings.

“I saw you enter the post office this morning, and it was like an explosion going off–too loud, too fast, too abrupt–all anyone heard was a blast of noise.”

OK, I always talk a little fast, but too loud, too abrupt? I was just greeting folks. Although several did kind of step back a bit.

He wasn’t done: “And you’ll need to learn how to walk differently, or it’ll take forever to get anywhere. Just watch the silhouette of anyone walking across the snow. They don’t lead with their heels into the ground like you do; you just dig yourself in with every step. You’ve got to walk flat, evenly, almost gently. And don’t swing your arms so much; you’ll just sink deeper and feel colder at the same time by moving the air around so much. You’ll get it over time, although that will mean less entertainment for everyone else.”

Hmm, I thought, this could be a very long winter if I’ve got to begin by learning to walk and talk all over again; I’m pretty sure it took me several months the first time when I was starting fresh, and, well you know, old habits…And besides, I had “real work” to do. The school principal had already warned me to throw away my calendar. When the caribou herd arrives, or later, when the sheefish start running, the village sense of time is reset and entire cycles of activities swing into effect; people just take off, and it doesn’t make any difference how long or thoroughly you plan otherwise. And somehow, somewhere, we were going to plant potatos (the local leadership’s vision for literally cultivating greater self-reliance).

Without local guides, I literally wouldn’t have lasted very long, much less participated in getting anything dramatically new started. And without my presence onsite as a local guide to the corporate management in Minneapolis, they would have stumbled into even deeper blunders than they had during the initial contracting phase of the project (don’t get me started–it was an arctic agriculture project, you can imagine the risk management stipulations related to “project deliverables,” and the confusion and dismay of local residents on just what they could expect and hold the contractor accountable for).

Local guides are just as critical in corporate settings, and in surprising ways. Years later, an  interview team I served on was completely set back on its heels when one applicant turned the conversation into a profound analysis of the foundation’s current communications and staff morale issues. She had arrived a half hour early and had just sat in the reception area by the elevator, noting conversations among staff passing through and then asking the receptionist a few subtly well-framed questions. She had already formed a pretty good idea of whether this work environment was right for her before we had asked the first question.

Local guides are at the center of building understanding, internally and externally.The cultivation of relationships with local guides–or conversely the decision to be a local guide–is critical, not only for perceiving the situation and the available pathways and resources for action, but perhaps most importantly for shaping and almost certainly expanding your own contribution to the change underway.

And now, with each new voluntary or involuntary relocation (dislocation?), we are all learning to walk and talk again, to find our way anew beyond familiar guideposts. And yet at the same time, there have never been so many opportunities to discover or become local guides. For those who are discerning and patient, local wisdom is blossoming from multiple centers of experience across the planet, through blogs and twitters (did I mention about learning to talk all over again?), as well as conversations in coffee shops and along the sidelines of the soccer pitch.