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10 Minutes with Patrick Hollingworth: Business Lessons from Mountaineering

What do mountaineering and business have to do with each other? Patrick Hollingworth, an experienced mountaineer who climbed Everest and other 8,000-meter peaks using the alpine-style approach, gives us the answer.

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getAbstract: How did you become a mountaineer?

Patrick Hollingworth: I got into mountaineering when I was studying at university. It was a distraction from my studies. It’s not easy to become a mountaineer in Australia, you have to learn the ropes in New Zealand. I did a technical mountaineering course there. I used mountaineering as a way to travel the world. Once a year I would embark on a different expedition to a different continent, a different mountain range. I studied geography, psychology and anthropology, so that all came together with mountaineering. It’s a good canvas for me to explore the world.

getAbstract: We find it really interesting that you use mountaineering to explain how organizations should deal with change. How did you come up with that idea?

Patrick Hollingworth: I always knew that mountaineering was a metaphor that could be used in many different facets of life. But it’s never been used very successfully in business. A lot of people use it as a way to illustrate the old way of doing business – dream big, push hard, set goals. It’s fairly traditional management speak. But I didn’t buy into that and I thought mountaineering wasn’t being used very effectively. I felt that by focusing more specifically on the alpine style of mountaineering, as opposed to the expedition style, if would be a useful metaphor to articulate what the new world of business demands of all organization in terms of flexibility and responsiveness to uncertainty. You know, everyone is talking about being agile.

getAbstract: Can you tell us about your personal experience with both styles of mountaineering, alpine and expedition?

Patrick Hollingworth: When I first learned to climb, it was alpine style. Later, when I started climbing the bigger mountains, particularly the Himalayas, I started climbing expedition style. But I realized very quickly that expedition style didn’t suit me. Expedition style is about trying to control the external environment to meet your skill set. It’s about simplification. You try to eradicate uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity, whereas in alpine style your embrace those things. You might hear alpine style described as meeting the mountain on her ground, or at her level. It’s not about reducing complexity or the difficult of the mountain.

getAbstract: So, when you’re talking to businesspeople, how do you explain this alpine approach to them so that they can put it into practice?

Patrick Hollingworth: My recommendation is to start small. The traditional approach to transforming an organization would be to announce it to the world and set a three- or five-year time frame. It’s announced top-down and it’s fixed. That sort of approach to transformation used to work, but now, in a world that is increasingly interconnected, complex and unpredictable, by the time you’ve implemented your three- or five-year transformation project, by the time you’ve changed, the context may have completely changed as well. Transformation is something that has to be top-down, bottom-up, inside-out.

So, my recommendation is to start small. Ask yourself, what can we do now? An alpine style climber would scope the route and ask: What are the conditions now? How are the conditions likely to change? What pieces of equipment are we likely to use? In other words, what’s the context?

getAbstract: One last question, we heard that you take businesspeople on trips to do some climbing as part of your leadership training program. What’s that experience like?

Patrick Hollingworth: Yes, we go out to New Zealand. We don’t to technical mountaineering, it’s more about using the landscape and looking at people’s natural responses to uncertainty and complexity. We want to help people get away from the artificial construct of the office environment, and reconnect in a natural environment. Most people find that refreshing and inspiring. The mountain environment is a good natural setting to let that happen.

getAbstract: The getAbstract team will definitely join you if you ever do this in Switzerland! Thank you for the wonderful interview, Patrick.

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