An uncertain and complex world: Why bother with parallels between mountaineering and business?
You’ve no doubt seen it before, at a business conference or perhaps a leadership offsite. The ‘motivational’ speaker who has climbed a mountain or two and thinks that their success is relevant to yours. In fact, that speaker might have even been me. The speaker is rolled out and tells you inspirational stories about the difficulties they overcame to reach the summit and make it back down the mountain alive.
Some even exhort superficial colloquialisms about setting goals, never giving up and overcoming all odds. Inspirational? Perhaps. But relevant to your own business? Not so much.
Despite the worlds of business and mountaineering sharing a number of parallels (decision making, managing risk, collaboration and adaptation to change, to name but a few), they have never been meaningfully explored in the business context.
Whilst inspiration is important, it’s not enough: superficial messages and shallow lessons are no longer relevant in today’s increasingly uncertain and complex business landscape.
Uncertainty and complexity
To understand why the business landscape has become shrouded in so much uncertainty and complexity, it is so very important for all of us to understand how the world is changing. Beyond the buzzword vernacular of disruption, agility and innovation, the world is undergoing a fundamental restructuring which is being driven by the increased interaction and connectivity of people across the globe, via massive technological improvements. Although some people will claim otherwise, no one has ever before experienced the combined volume and speed of change which we are now starting to experience.
For example, at the start of this millennium 360 million people had access to the internet, but by 2020 that number is predicted to reach five billion people. Of these people, it is estimated that three billion will have access to a smart phone. The majority of these three billion people are hungry to attain typical western standards of living and security that they do not currently possess, and they are prepared to work hard for it. Technology will be the great enabler for them, giving them unprecedented access to global markets for employment, enterprise and commerce.
The digital and technological revolution has hardly begun, and it is completely rewriting the way in which our businesses function and operate. This rapid growth of technology and increased global connectivity is what is creating the uncertainty and complexity of the business world of today, and make no mistake: the uncertainty and complexity won’t be going away anytime soon.
Why is this a problem?
The human species has evolved gradually over time, meaning that adaptation to rapidly changing environments does not come easily for us. With a preference for stability and comfort, we have evolved in a relatively linear fashion, and by virtue of this, most things we do in life are linear in nature, too.
This includes many of the things that we build, both conceptually and in reality. Being the conceptual structures that we have created for conducting business, organisations are in many ways the poster child for our tendency for linearity. But the traditional, hierarchical organisational structures still in use today have changed little since their origin in the North American railroad boom of the 1850’s: in short, they have passed their use-by-date.
So, back to the original angle of this article, what is relevant and meaningful to business from the world of mountaineering?
A remarkable parallel
It just so happens that there is a remarkable parallel between the way that most mountaineers climb mountains, and the way that most organisations function—it’s called expedition style. As you’ll read below, it’s a style which has had its day and is likely to provide diminishing returns in an increasingly uncertain and complex world.
Expedition style has its roots in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range on earth. The inherent difficulties associated with incredibly low levels of oxygen and the extreme cold make it nearly impossible for climbers to stay alive up there. To mitigate these difficulties and reduce the downside risk, expedition style is an approach which uses considerable equipment and manpower to overcome, and even reduce, the difficulties of the mountain. In many regards, it’s actually about manipulating and controlling the external environment so that it meets the climbers’ limited capabilities.
A reliance upon fixed infrastructure and massive manpower
Much of the equipment used in expedition style ascents is fixed infrastructure—things like ladders, ropes and stocked camps which are left in-situ on the mountain for the duration of the climb (sometimes for up to two months). And if you are the team who put the infrastructure in place, you might even charge others to use it.
Expedition style also relies significantly upon manpower—and lots of it. Typical Everest expeditions these days are comprised of an expedition leader, three or four western guides, a couple of trainee guides, up to 40 climbers, and at least that number again of Sherpas (an indigenous ethnic group, widely regarded for their climbing skills, and who do most of the hard work by carrying all of the equipment up the mountain—and in doing so face an excessive amount of danger).
Climbing expedition style can be quite a powerful way to climb a mountain, but it’s not very aesthetic (think long lines of climbers and crowded summits). It’s also very expensive, very inefficient and not particularly good at adapting quickly to changing circumstances (such as storms and avalanches).
Furthermore, whilst expedition style is relatively resilient and robust in stable and predictable circumstances (and indeed, it’s often very successful in these conditions), it tends to break apart when unexpected events happen.
For example, in 2014, an avalanche beneath Camp 1 on Everest killed 16 Sherpas (including a very close friend of mine) and resulted in the mountain being closed to climbers for the remainder of the year. Everest was again closed in 2015 when an earthquake struck Nepal and triggered a massive avalanche at Everest base camp, killing 22 people. Nobody has stood on the summit of Mount Everest for nearly two years now.
Many organisations operate expedition style
It’s the same way in which many organisations operate today.
Reliance upon (and preferably ownership of) fixed infrastructure and assets is seen as advantageous (it enables the organisation to dominate their marketplace), and a linear, hierarchical structure which features centralised and top-down leadership is likewise considered de rigueur for operational efficiency and excellence.
But just like on the mountain, while organisations operating in this manner have been successful during periods of relative stability and predictability, we are starting to see them struggle during this recent shift to uncertainty and unpredictability, when unexpected events have happened (such as the rapid rise and fall of Chinese growth, the GFC, political instability, falling commodity prices, tech disruption etc).
Having tried to control their surrounding environment to match their own capabilities and levels of risk tolerance, expedition style organisations are suffering from chronic inefficiency and low productivity, over-bureaucratisation, slow response times to change, and a tendency to provide diminishing returns when unexpected events occur.
Just think of the number of organisations which have been struggling since the GFC due to chronic market uncertainty and volatility, or which now face an uncertain viability through the impact of disruption and disintermediation.
So, if we have a problem, what is the solution?
The solution: it’s called alpine style
We can again look to the mountain environment, but this time it’s to a smaller group of mountaineers who for the most part are developing their approach out of the limelight, away from the mainstream.
The approach is called alpine style, although colloquially it’s known by its practitioners as light and fast.
Practiced by a relatively small subset of highly-skilled mountaineers called alpinists, the solution to the inefficiency, high cost and slow response time of expedition style is to move quickly through the mountain environment, carrying as little equipment as possible—only the bare essentials needed for the climb.
By restricting their reliance upon equipment, two things happen for alpinists: firstly, they are much lighter, and therefore faster and more able to respond to sudden change. Secondly, the alpinist is considerably more self-reliant than the expedition style climber. Rather than depending upon infrastructure to assist them in reaching their goals, alpinists only have themselves, and an absolute minimum of equipment, to rely on. This means that the more an alpinist climbs, the better they become at climbing alpine style. It’s a virtuous, rather than vicious, cycle.
The alpine style team
When climbing alpine style in a small team (usually only two or three climbers on one rope, or perhaps four climbers climbing together in roped pairs), there is no structural hierarchy and no central leader; rather there is shared decision making responsibility.
Rather than a hierarchical, linear structure, alpinist teams operate as networks, and assemble and disassemble as the conditions necessitate. Thus, if you’re a competent climber you can turn up to a mountain town such as Chamonix and meet another climber with who you might climb a challenging route for the next two days, and then disband, each going your own way afterwards.
Each alpinist brings with them a skill set that compliments their fellow team members, ensuring that as a whole, the team is able to respond to the vagaries of the terrain. One might excel at climbing steep, frozen waterfall ice, while the other might be better suited to overhanging rock faces. A third might be particularly good at leading over mixed terrain.
The high levels of skills that each climber possesses mean that each alpine style team can operate autonomously, and does not require guidance from a central leader and decision maker. The end result is a staggeringly fast response rate to rapidly changing external circumstances.
The traits of an alpinist
In terms of prescription, there are twelve elements which comprise an alpinist, an alpine style team, and an alpine style organisation. Of these twelve, three of the elements relate specifically to individual and cultural character traits. For the purpose of this article, it is most appropriate that we focus upon these three traits.
The first element relates to your mindset. Psychologists refer to a spectrum of mindset, with fixed being at one end of the spectrum and growth at the other.
The person or team or organisational culture with a fixed mindset believes it is already all that it can be, with no further room for improvement. They tend to rely on past performance as a predictor of their future success, and are hence incredibly invested in the retention and preservation of the status quo. They abhor change.
On the other hand, alpinists have a growth mindset, and see life as an infinite game. They move with the changing boundaries and rules of the changing game. They embrace change, because they know that when you strip the certainty out of life, that’s when things become interesting.
The second element relates to your attitude towards learning.
Just like your mindset, your beliefs around education can either be fixed or open. We’ve all passed through a traditional education system which is linear in nature, and very much fixated on an endpoint (i.e. graduation). But in this rapidly changing world, the days of education being played as a finite game are over. The alpinist is always learning. The alpinist knows that the day they stop learning is the day they die. The same applies for organisations.
The third element relates to the way in which you conduct yourself.
As we all know, the days of the Alpha leader are over, but it’s remarkable how prevalent they still are. Much like the person or organisation with a fixed mindset, the typical Alpha is backward rather then forward-looking; but success in yesterday’s world does not equate to success in tomorrow’s. The Alpha fights to retain control in a world which is inherently uncontrollable. The Alpha is afraid to show vulnerability, but it’s in showing one’s vulnerability that true strength lies. The alpinist is not an Alpha.
Alpine style in the organisation
Whilst it might be entirely suitable for an alpine style team in the mountains to quickly form and then just as quickly disband, that probably won’t work so well in an organisational context. And that’s OK. The alpine style organisation is not specifically beholden to rules and regulations—it always takes a strengths-based approach, using what works best, and discarding what doesn’t. Indeed, alpine style itself is as much a philosophy as it is a methodology.
Light and fast is the future
We are increasingly being told that the solution to today’s volatile and changing business landscape is to be agile and innovative. But few can actually articulate what that looks like in an organisational or business context.
That’s what alpine style, or light and fast, provides. An articulation of agility and innovation. It provides us with an overarching ethos and a tangible method for developing employees and structuring our organisations to be able to adapt to and move quickly through change. It’s new way for business to deal with this increasingly uncertain and complex business landscape.