I work as a catalyst in two areas: innovation and mindfulness. As an innovation catalyst I help organizations foster a culture of innovation. As a mindfulness catalyst I help individuals perceive the illusions created by their own thinking process.
1996 Everest disaster and a lesson in “design as if implementation matters”
When I finished reading “Into
thin air: A personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster” by Jon Krakauer a
couple of weeks ago, it was still considered the
worst Everest tragedy. It is a story of a disaster that happened on May 10
and 11, 1996 on Mt. Everest in which eight people died in a single storm
including two expedition leaders: Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. However, as I am
writing this blog, it is no longer the worst tragedy. Friday before last, on
April 18, sixteen Sherpas got
killed in an avalanche. Climbing Mount Everest continues to be a risky
affair and no amount of learning is likely to completely eliminate the risk. In
the words of Krakauer - On Everest, it is a nature of systems to break down
with a vengeance. That doesn’t prevent people like me in deriving learnings
from the 1996 disaster story. Here is my key take-away from “Into thin air”.
Rob Hall was world’s leading Everest guide running a
company “Adventure Consultants”. By 1995 Rob had assisted thirty nine clients reach
the top of the mountain and return back safely. In 1996 May expedition his team
had clients some of whom had paid as
much as sixty five thousand dollars in order to get to the world’s tallest
Rob was disciplined and meticulous. He had fine-tuned an
effective acclimatization plan that would enable the team to adapt to the
paucity of oxygen as you go up. Rob knew that timing is crucial in Everest
expeditions. He lectured the team repeatedly about the importance of having a
pre-determined turnaround time on the summit day. It would be 1pm or worst case
2pm. Everybody was to abide by it no matter how close one was to the peak.
“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up the hill,” Rob would
say, “The trick is to get back down alive.”
On the summit day, Rob reached the summit after 2pm and waited for his team member Doug Hansen
to reach the summit till 4pm before they began their descent. Doug was so tired
by the time he reached the top, he didn’t have much energy left to come down. As
luck would have it, he ran out of his oxygen too. Both Rob and Doug got caught
in the storm that followed and didn’t make it down. How could a disciplined
expedition leader like Rob Hall make such a mistake of not adhering to a
predetermined turnaround time?
As Krakauer writes in the book: Lucid thought is all but
impossible at 29,000 ft. In addition, the intensity of the desire of achieving
the goal – for you and for your clients - is much higher than the cold-blooded
process adherence and turning back at 2pm. In short, your thinking is heavily
biased. But equally importantly, it is known apriori that your thinking is
going to be crooked as you climb up. Then why not plan taking into account such
a possibility? Is it possible to create a plan that accounts for the distorted
thinking during its implementation? This is the central question when you want
to “design as if implementation matters”. To use the Elephant-Rider
metaphor of the mind, it is like the Rider planning for a situation when the
Elephant has taken over. How do we do it?
Here are a few options none of which is fool-proof: One, responsibility
of the turnaround decision can be delegated to a place where the mind is less emotionally
charged and has more oxygen e.g. the base-camp or camp-one. Two, after the predetermined
turnaround time, everybody coming back takes the responsibility of requesting
the up-going climber to turn around, despite your position in the pecking
Three, each expedition team performs pre-mortem
before the expedition begins. In this
exercise everybody in the team imagines a situation in the future when the
project has been a massive disaster. In Everest expedition, it means imagining
your own body lying around 28,000 ft and several other casualties. And then
listing down what all went wrong. That leads to various precautionary measures
and a common understanding of the importance of a protocol such as turnaround time.
“Design as if implementation matters” has significant
implications for the design of business strategy. A strategy which gets finalized in an offsite
in cosy settings may fail to take into account the emotional biases of the team
during its execution – just like Hall’s Everest team.
No amount of planning
can eliminate the risk in Everest expeditions or in business. However, techniques
such as pre-mortem may help increase the “Margin of safety”. A related video: Mt. Everest - The storm (1996) - A PBS documentary on the 1996 disaster directed by David Breashears, one of the members of the IMAX team who climbed Everest during the same season and also helped the teams caught in the storm.