Thursday, December 24, 2020

Doing the last experiment first: illustrated through Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo

Last month, Reserve Bank of India issued an order to HDBC Bank stopping all launches of the digital business generating activities planned under its program Digital 2.0 and sourcing of new credit card customers. Reason? HDBC Bank suffered major outages in Internet banking and payment system due to a power failure in the primary data centre. These are temporary restrictions but such incidents could damage company’s brand. Question is: are such data outages avoidable? And could “doing the last experiment first” be helpful in such situations? Let’s explore these questions in this article.

“Doing the last experiment first” is one of my favourite levers of building margin of safety. We have mentioned the concept in our book “8 steps to innovation” and we borrowed the term from A. G. Lafley, ex-CEO of P&G. Doing the last experiment first involves validating the leap-of-faith assumption associated with an idea. What is a leap-of-faith assumption? An assumption that is (a) critical to the success of the idea, and (b) there is very little evidence available to support it. How does Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo illustrate this concept? Let’s look at it next.

Alex Honnold is an American rock-climber. In 2017, he became the first rock climber in the world to free solo 3000-foot wall of El Capitan in California. If you want to get a feel of what that means, check out this 5-minutes video showing Alex’s free-solo climbing scenes. To us Alex’s endeavour appears almost like a suicide attempt. And Alex says the same thing in his TED talk, “Seems scary? Yeah, it is” (1:13). However, he says something strange immediately after, “But on the day that video was taken (i.e. his free-solo), it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park.” Walk in the park? Was Alex serious or joking?

Alex explains in the TED talk his years of systematic effort in preparing for such a climb. But the part that is of interest to us is related to what Alex calls the most difficult part of the climb – the Boulder problem (8:06).  “It was about 2000-feet off the ground and consisted of the hardest physical moves of the whole route. (It involved) long pulls between poor handholds and with very small, slippery feet.” This manoeuvre culminated in a karate kick with left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner. This required “high degree of precision and flexibility”. Alex had been doing a nightly stretching routine for this move for over a year (8:35).

Ability to navigate the boulder problem including the karate kick comfortably is an example of the leap-of-faith assumption in Alex’s climb. If he didn’t want to be a lucky climber, then he had to master the solution of the boulder problem. In this video, “What if he falls? The terrifying reality behind filming free-solo”, we see Alex practicing on the Boulder problem (6:00). And we see him practicing with a rope and actually falling in the process (6:07). What that means is that Alex would have experimented with his ideas to navigate the Boulder problem with rope first. And he would have failed in many of these attempts and learned valuable lessons on what may work. This is an example of doing the last experiment first.

Can Boulder problem be re-created in an indoor environment? Yes. You can see how an indoor wall climbing center VauxWall recreated the Boulder problem in this video. And see how Alex’s climb feels like a graceful dance on the wall here (10:50). I don’t know if Alex actually practiced in an indoor setup like this. But the point is it is possible to re-create a difficult situation in a controlled environment so that one can practice more easily, more often and at lower cost.

What would “doing the last experiment first” mean in the context of data centre outages in HDFC Bank? We can get a clue from what Dr. Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO says they do at Amazon. They started what was later called “Game days” where they pulled the plug from a data centre and see how their site held on. And like the indoor gym recreating the Boulder problem perhaps such experiments can be performed in a more controlled environment as well. At least it is worth considering it because the consequences of failure could be grim.

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