Is it Time to Rethink…Strategy as Mountaineering?

During your career you’re likely to have seen your company’s strategy depicted as a mountain to be climbed, with a sequence of intermediate milestones marking the way to the goal, or summit.

It’s easy to be sceptical of this metaphor, as it essentially compares business leaders sitting in air-conditioned boardrooms to climbers battling altitude, frostbite and avalanches. However, in this — the third article in my series re-examining common metaphors in business — I’m going to argue that enacting strategy successfully is like mountaineering, only in ways I’d never before appreciated or understood.

Into Thin Air

Figure 1: A classical depiction of strategic transformation as mountain climbing

Since reading various books about mountain climbing, I’ve come to conclude that the issue isn’t necessarily with the metaphor itself, but rather with a basic lack of understanding of how mountains are climbed in real life. Visualising progress as a straight and certain route from the base to the summit is absurd for a number of reasons.

For one, the mountain is constantly changing. There are no direct paths or shortcuts to the summit — just as the most successful strategies are full of unexpected setbacks, obstacles, dead-ends and improvisations. 

Although no two strategies are the same, one aspect reliably reoccurs: they are about trying to achieve something new and valuable. By reaching the strategic goal, the company is transformed, for the better. The most analogous climb in history therefore is the first attempt on the summit of Everest by George Mallory in 1924. The tallest mountain in the world was then known as the ‘Third Pole’, and after failing to reach either the North or South Poles first, the British Empire was determined to claim this victory as their own, to remind the world of their pre-eminence.

When Mallory’s team arrived in the Himalayas, close to nothing was known about the mountain or its environs in the western world. Yet Mallory and his companions intuitively grasped the concept of ‘test and learn’, and before the summit was even attempted, they launched two lengthy reconnaissance missions. The lessons learned from these difficult (even deadly) rehearsals helped them devise new principles that are still followed by mountain climbers to this day. For example, the team pioneered the use of bottled oxygen to mitigate the effects of altitude, helped develop new clothing fabrics, and established a sequence of high camps on the mountainside at which to gradually acclimate.

Mallory’s attempt on Everest has another, more unfortunate similarity with the vast majority of strategic transformations —it failed. Or should I say, it might have failed. The question of whether he was the first to reach the summit of Everest is one of the great unsolved mysteries. When the clouds briefly parted on the morning of the final ascent, Mallory and his climbing partner were spotted less than 800 feet below the peak, climbing confidently. Then the clouds rolled in, and they were never seen alive again.

The Three Decision-Making Zones of Mount Everest

The principles and practice of mountaineering established by Mallory and his team demonstrate how an experimental approach to problem-solving is the best way to achieve transformative, long-term goals. However, the true power of metaphorically associating strategy with mountain climbing was revealed to me by this article, written by a team of academics who’d climbed Everest themselves.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors argue that the three distinct physical zones on Everest relate to optimal patterns of decision-making in successful businesses.

Figure 2: The Three Decision-Making Zones of Everest

Reaching Base Camp

The majority of decisions fall into the first category — the Base Camp — which is a predictable and stable environment, featuring lots of infrastructure, at which a relatively low number of calls need to be made. As such, tried-and-tested processes can be applied with confidence, and decisions reached through consensus.

When you’re at Base Camp…You’re in the realm of Business As Usual (BAU) decision-making, which is typically done by committee. The impacts of your decisions are widespread but incremental, and a single decision can apply for months if not years. At best, your decisions gradually improve things by degree. At worst, you end up creating frozen, stifling and dehumanising bureaucracies.

Navigating the Icefall

When challenges can’t be adequately addressed by Base Camp thinking, they cascade into the second category — the Icefall.

The Icefall on Everest is essentially a glacier moving down the mountain at the speed of 3–4 feet a day. Large gaps (or crevasses) open underfoot quickly and unexpectedly, whilst above towers of ice (or seracs) can collapse without warning. The environment is so unstable only ‘Rule of Thumb’ guidelines apply. When passing through the Icefall, there’s a sharp increase in the number of judgements that need to be made, which shifts the decision-making process from consensus to commitment. In other words, when navigating this part of the mountain ‘the first climber on the rope calls the shots’.

When you’re in the Icefall…You’re using loosely defined ‘pattern fit’ decision-making to keep the strategy moving. You’ll hear such statements as “we only pursue markets that give us a 15% margin or more”, or more simply “we don’t do that here”. These clear (if blunt) rules reduce the noise of unlimited options and help the organisation focus on what’s important. The concept of ‘the first climber on the rope’ works best when organisations are trying to establish a new offering or capability. That is, it’s vital you place your trust in those individuals capable of (dis)proving the value of an opportunity. If you force them to comply with heavy-duty governance, and/or seek consensus from the wider business at every step, they will fail.

The Summit

In certain circumstances, the organisation will need to make decisions in the third category — the Summit (or ‘Death Zone’) — terrain so unfamiliar and bewildering that normal rules no longer apply.

The summit is dangerous for two main reasons. The first is the threat of sudden, deadly blizzards or avalanches that can wipe climbers off the mountain. In the business world, the closest analogy is a significant shock that hits the brand out of nowhere. The massive outage of Facebook’s ecosystem (the day before damaging ‘whistleblower’ testimony) springs to mind, as does the recent controversial attack on free speech at the aptly named Base Camp.

The summit is also dangerous because above 8,000m (Everest is 8849m tall) the air is so thin the body begins to die. Climbers become hypoxic, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and under-nourished. This leads to muddled thinking, with the simplest actions hard if not impossible to complete. In these extreme conditions, all decisions are critical at exactly the same moment as your ability to make them is compromised.

You’re in the Death Zone when… The people within your organisation are burned out. When individuals and teams suffer the ill effects of sustained, chronic work-related stress, they run out of energy, impairing their ability to make good decisions. If burn out becomes endemic, the first priority is to navigate the organisation as quickly as possible out of the Death Zone. The very worst thing to do is to succumb to ‘Summit Fever’ – becoming so narrowly focussed on a strategic goal that you recklessly continue towards the unattainable, at all costs – and with typically disastrous consequences

Coming Down the Mountain

Whilst writing this article, I’ve changed my mind about the link between mountain climbing and strategy. When applied correctly, the metaphor effectively describes iterative, experimental approaches to strategic transformation — and it’s also hugely useful when categorising different approaches to decision-making within organisations.

In these ways, climbing a mountain is a decent metaphor for strategic thinking and the importance of working together to pursue organisational goals. However, in the aftermath of this difficult year, I predict there’ll be a reckoning with what ‘reaching the summit of the mountain’ actually represents in the context of our professional lives. The idea that the best career gains are made by working long hours during the evening and weekend is being openly ridiculed. Instead, many leading organisations are announcing their commitment to rethinking how and where and when their employees work, and governments are introducing legislation on the ‘Right to Disconnect’. 

Put simply, companies that proactively help their colleagues cultivate and sustain a healthy work/life balance will leap ahead of their competition in the post-pandemic world. To behave otherwise would mean risking the loss of their best people in fluid and competitive labour markets. After all, talent is the oxygen that sustains any successful organisation. Trusting and empowering your best people will help your company meet volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity with confidence. Organisations need these capabilities more than ever if they are to reach the roof of the world.

Recently, I was asked to outline the Equal Experts’ solution to one of the most common problems in strategy: how to optimise the time between having an idea and realising value from that idea. 

This blog post is a brief introduction to the process, with each point expanded on in this video.

The good news is that the answer is relatively simple (my talk lasts just over ten minutes) and comprises three steps:

  1. First, you make sure your idea aligns with the strategic priorities of the business. That way you know you’re working towards an outcome that contributes to something meaningful and valuable. 
  2. Then you place “Bets” — acknowledging that your idea at this stage is still full of assumptions and unknowns that need to be proven out. 
  3. Finally, measure progress by regularly taking leading, attributable metrics and sharing them with others. That way, when making decisions, evidence is your guide.

Step One: Ensure your idea is aligned to the strategic priorities of the business

The best way to ensure alignment is to run an OKR session. Once the key goals and outcomes of the organisation have been gathered, plus the measures of progress, the portfolio can be visualised as a “Roadmap Radar” — an example of which is below.

Roadmap Radar

The “Goals” gathered during the OKR session define the coloured sections of the Radar — typically, there are 4–5 of them. They are the long-lived North Star of the organisation, capturing its purpose and values. “Outcomes” are the strategic priorities that align to the overall Goals (the “pizza slices” of the Roadmap Radar), divided into quarterly time horizons. Lastly, there are the “Bets” — the olives on the pizza. Each one of the “blips”’ on the radar represents a time-bound experiment designed to explore the attributable impacts of an intervention.

Step Two: What do we mean when we say “Place Bets”’?

The word “bet” encourages decision-makers to confront how much they are willing to invest in the desired outcome, in terms of people, time, budget (that could be spent elsewhere). It relies on the design of a structured experiment that creates feedback loops, validates the value of an idea, proves out assumptions, and reports on progress towards specific, leading metrics. 

One question stakeholders regularly ask is: how do you decide on how “big”’ to go on a bet? I’ve found this a useful way to guide my thinking – it’s an adaptation of Constable’s Curve and describes the relationship between confidence and fidelity. 

Yellow Brick Road

Recently, a client wanted to add a new product offering to their online store, but to actually create and sell it at-scale would have meant a huge upfront investment, and therefore risk. Instead, they gathered evidence of demand by offering the customer the ability to buy the item online, with those that clicked through receiving a regretful message saying the item in question was temporarily out of stock, and instead invited to consider some alternatives (which did exist in the real world). In this way, the client was able to use evidence to improve their confidence in the idea, without risking time or money on an idea whose value was essentially unknown. 

The challenge is to design experiments that sit on exactly the right spot of the Yellow Brick Road between confidence and fidelity, thereby proving – or disproving – the key assumptions without a disproportionate exposure to risk.

Step 3: Structuring thinking using the Bet Canvas

The best tool for the job of designing effective experiments is the Bet Canvas — illustrated below.

Bet Recycled pizza boxes

The Bet Canvas will typically become covered in next-best actions — but doing them all at once would make it impossible to reliably attribute cause and effect. Instead, you have to decide who will do what now, who will do what next, and who will do what later. Designating primary responsibility for each action allows everyone to know who to ask about what, at any time.

That requires a last tool: the Bet dashboard. 

Bet dashboard

Each week, the person responsible for an action uses the dashboard to report back to their team (and colleagues in the winder business) on what they’ve discovered. Each new thing that you learn helps define the next step — and you’ll notice that the dashboard explicitly acknowledges the assumptions underpinning the experiment. The point here is to ensure your efforts are aimed at gathering enough evidence to reliably say which of your assumptions have been proven right or wrong. Once you’ve emptied out the “Insufficient Evidence” column, you can say with confidence whether you should continue, pivot or stop.

Good luck!

And there you have it — a simple process designed to help you proceed quickly and reliably from idea to value.

If you have any comments or questions about this process, we’d love to hear from you. The slides are available here, my email address is on the final slide of my talk, and/or you should visit our website. And best of luck!