In the 80’s and 90’s extreme risk taking through team building was the rage. Executives were kayaking down rapids, zipping across zip lines, scrambling over Project Adventure walls and, yes, climbing mountains – all for the purpose of teaching team effectiveness. In time, cooler heads prevailed, as did higher liability premiums and the extreme outdoor events disappeared.
Well, now they might be back.
The success of the new IMAX 3D blockbuster, “Everest”, has reopened the discussions of a mountaintop crisis as a lesson in corporate risk taking. Being a team builder and nerdy junkie about the ill-fated 1996 disaster on Everest that killed 12, I couldn’t wait to experience it.
Competition vs. Cooperation
The new film is rich with special effects as one would hope for but the story is much deeper than the “storm that caught the climbers unaware.” As it becomes clear that three teams of 36 climbers and Sherpas would choke the narrow climb up, success became dependant upon a basic cooperation among the teams. Rob Hall’s passionate plea to Scott Fischer to team up became a foreshadowing of the disaster ahead. “The only way we both summit, mate, is if we work together.” Fischer and his Mountain Madness team were not in agreement and they fractured at the crisis point, with head-strong Anatoli Boukreev blasting out ahead with several clients, refusing Hall’s team togetherness suggestion. Boukreev did make it to the summit and subsequently refused to assist the dying climbers (as he was “exhausted.”) Poor planning (with ladders, ropes and oxygen,) bad luck with a fast-moving super storm and the unknown quantity of inexperienced climbers in the decision-clouding high altitude, all contributed to this paradoxical “burning platform.”
“It was fry or jump. So I jumped” Andy Mochan, survivor of the Piper Alpha disater
The Burning Platform theory comes from the 1988 North Sea oil rig explosion that killed 167. One of the 63 survivors recounted how he stood on the edge of the platform that was so hot from the fire it was melting, and realized that probable death was a slightly better chance than certain death. So he jumped 100 feet into the freezing ocean. His rescue and decision at the height of crisis led organizational change consultant, Daryl Conner, to develop and propel the metaphor for corporate crises management. The essence is that a) when faced with disaster, it is better to take an outcome of probable results rather than certain demise and b) you don’t have to wait until the platform is on fire to make the changes the company needs.
Up on the Hillary Step, decisions were made that ultimately doomed people. Coupled with the Sherpas’ mistakes and the Black Swan of the fast moving storm, their crisis decision-making resulted in twelve people dying. But the point Connor makes is the risk trumps status quo when the later spells disaster, either financial or physical.
“The high cost of maintaining the status quo played an important role in sustaining the motivation needed to truly realize change objectives.” Daryl Conner
So the risk (jumping from the platform, giving up on the summit attempt, investing in that start-up) is not always an easy choice compared to the status quo (burning, freezing to death or bankruptcy).
Complacency will kill you.
This lesson is not lost on business leaders, especially Japans’ Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani, who has led his execs on a bonding and team building event climbing Mount Tanigawa (where more people have died than on Everest.) Sure, bonding and strategy sessions were a core part but the “struggle together to the top” becomes less of a catch phrase as it cements itself into the DNA of everyone attending.
Alison Levine, mountaineer and author of “On The Edge: The Art Of High-Impact Leadership,” has built a career of corporate consulting around her own lessons of mountain climbing. She compares the extreme environments like the “kill zone” of Everest and the barely habitable Antarctic to the ruthless world of corporate business where “the requirements of success are strikingly similar.” It is, she maintains, all about managing risk.
“Plans are outdated as soon as they are finished in environments that change very rapidly. You must possess the ability to act/react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect because complacency will kill you”
Levine urges leaders to reward the risk-takers on their team, even when they fail – being “failure tolerant” she calls it. Take risks, but make them “smart risks.”
Simulated Disaster: Team Building at a Safe Distance
But the good news is that you don’t always have to bring your staff out to the Khumbu Icefall for leadership lessons. We team building facilitators can let you experience the stress of decision-making without leaving the meeting room. For starters, there is the old tried-and-true “Desert Survival Situation” developed by the Air Force. Activities like this table-top simulation are numerous and have varied settings (mountaintop, tsunami, even the Moon.) Of course, you miss the heat stroke or frostbite in your decision-making.
One British company even created a team building board game, simulating the Everest experience, complete with DVD scenes to get you in the mood.
What all of the simulations do is exactly what any of our team experiences do. They allow extreme risk-taking in a safe environment. Success or failure are equally valued, especially in the debrief because team simulations are a trial run for the real thing back at the office. Our lesson as team builders is to bring that experience into a meeting and, if failure occurs (and it will) at least no dies.
Call today if you’d like any of what you see here, except the Everest experience. You’ll have to book that yourself.