Himalayan Innovation

Himalayan InnovationMany readers are familiar with Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of the climbing disaster on Mount Everest in May, 1996.

Beyond Into Thin Air, there are many other interesting works on Himalayan mountaineering expeditions that chronicle the efforts of men and women who took on the ultimate challenge of attaining various great summits starting in the early twentieth century using a variety of technical equipment and climbing strategies. From an innovation standpoint, there are several attributes of high altitude mountaineering that resonate with those of us working in challenging space of trying to find creative ways of overcoming old and new problems for our companies and customers.

1. Himalayan Mountaineering Aspect – Roping together

Roping a team together is one of the most fundamental principles of mountaineering, and is particularly important for high altitude mountaineering where every step, even in seemingly stable areas, could result in a dangerous fall. By roping climbers together, teams knew that if one person slipped then the others could save that person by further securing their positions. Perhaps the most famous example of this technique occurred on an American expedition to the summit of K2 (the second highest peak in the world) in 1953 when a team of four climbers started to slide down a precipice of several thousand feet but were able to grab a rope that Pete Schoening, in an instant, was able to hold firm via an ice axe belay to save the team from a certain death.

A more somber example of fixed ropes was the 1999 discovery of Robert Mallory’s remains on Everest. Mallory died during his summit attempt in 1924 and his body, shielded for almost a century from decay by the dry and cold conditions on the mountain, had a detached rope wrapped around the waist that was previously connected to his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, who also perished in the summit attempt.

Innovation Approach

When we engage colleagues to take on an innovation challenge, we can benefit from mentally roping ourselves together as we run into the typical obstacles that face innovators, such as bureaucratic inertia or set ways of doing business. As innovators we inevitably will challenge the status quo, and only by working tightly together as a team can we overcome those obstacles. When approaching an innovation challenge, we should think about who we are roped up with on our team. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of roping together is that each individual in the team continues to work independently (climbing towards the objective), but by being roped together, each team member can climb or descend with the confidence that a small mistake will not result in complete failure. That extra confidence allows each team member to move more assertively, and it is precisely this assertiveness and confidence that the innovator needs to improve his or her performance.

2. Himalayan Mountaineering Aspect – Multiple camps and acclimatization

A casual observer would assume that a high altitude climber would simply start at the base and keep going until he or she reached the summit. The reality of climbing is that a climbing team has to carefully plan an assault consisting of a series of camps set at different levels on the mountain.

There are several reasons for the use of multiple camps. First, it takes several days of constant climbing to go from the base of a mountain to its summit, and it would be impossible for a climber to carry enough supplies for this entire timeframe. Thus an expedition will set up a series of camps at various altitudes along the way and use team members and local Sherpas to hike repeatedly up and down to those camps to stockpile supplies for the summit attempt. Each camp is placed is a logical location along the path and contains tents and supplies and is ideally sheltered from the high winds and rough conditions of extreme elevation. Expeditions always start with a large Base Camp and then will establish hour or five other camps up the mountain (Camp) depending on the difficulties posed by a particular mountain. The highest camp is meant for the summit teams to spend one night and then make their final push to the summit, followed by another night of shelter and then a descent back down the mountain to reach the base.

A second reason for the use of multiple camps is the fact that the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes makes it difficult for humans to function effectively for extended periods of time. As a result, the body needs to acclimatize to the conditions so that the climber is able to spend several days at high elevations to make it to the summit.  Without proper acclimatization, the mountaineer would not be able to survive, as would be the case if a helicopter deposited a person on the summit of Everest (a Eurocopter has indeed accomplished this feat, though no one exited the craft).

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Innovation Approach

When we engage in an innovation session we often pressure ourselves to come up with fresh new ideas within a given amount of time, adhering to the typical managerial directive to “be innovative.” While we sometimes can serendipitously stumble across a great new idea in the course of our efforts, we more often end up identifying some interesting themes that require further pursuit at a later date. Perhaps we should think about the multiple camp concept from high altitude mountaineering when we tackle an innovation session. We should establish our base camp, with a set of guiding themes and principles that we can use as the foundation of all our efforts. We may next want to establish smaller virtual camps along the way of our journey, focusing on the supplies we will need at each stage to continue our pursuit. We can then check into those camps periodically in the future as we continue our innovation journey.

For instance, we might have a core team at the base then bring in different participants for different stages of our endeavor, depending on the different perspectives we might need at different stages of the process. At a minimum, we could use the notion of multiple camps as an organizational principle to help our teams understand the multiple steps required in our innovation expedition.

3. Himalayan Mountaineering Aspect – Summit Credit

In the more chivalrous era of mountaineering when there were Himalayan summits that had not been reached by climbers, there was a very specific protocol around how credit for reaching a summit was assigned. Summit teams typically consisted of sets of two climbers who would work together to reach the top, and the most famous team is Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Many of us recall that Hillary was the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. An unwritten rule among climbers was that it did not matter which member of a two-person team reached the summit first, as both would receive credit for being the “first” to conquer a mountain. In addition to being a more noble approach to demonstrate cooperation, this was also intended to remove any incentive for a climber to sidestep a colleague in an attempt to “beat” that person to the summit. Both climbing members would receive credit for the achievement no matter who actually set foot on the summit the first time, and in a team of multiple sets of two-person teams, all four would receive credit even if their summit attempts were separated by a day. In fact, to this day it is not known whether Norgay or Hillary was actually the first to set foot on the summit of Everest. The only picture taken at the summit was of Norgay, taken by Hillary, since the former did not know how to operate a camera. Nonetheless, both are credited with the first successful ascent of Everest, though in Western lore we usually only hear about Hillary’s name when the topic arises.

Innovation Approach

When working on a new idea as part of a team, there is a distinct human impulse that works contrary to the notion of free and open sharing of ideas. After all, if a person has developed a concept that is truly innovative, he or she may want to receive full credit for the creation of that idea. In the world of corporate innovation where intellectual property belongs to the company employing the innovator, this is less relevant, but the concept of shared credit still is important, as each of us is presumably driven by a desire for recognition and success. The chivalrous sharing of credit in mountaineering demonstrates the spirit of shared success that should drive our innovation efforts, where the input and work of multiple team members is as critical to the end product as the one person who developed the new idea. Encouraging this dedication to the common cause upfront can ensure that team members have the right attitude in their innovation sessions.

Himalayan Innovation

4. Himalayan Mountaineering Aspect – New ways to climb the same peak

One of the most significant measurements in high altitude mountaineering is the 8,000 meter (26,247 feet) mark, and it just so happens that all fourteen of the peaks topping 8,000 meters are in the Himalayas. During the great era of mountaineering achievement in the 1950s and 1960s, teams from across the world attacked these peaks one by one, starting with Annapurna I in 1950 (summited by a team from France) and concluding with Shishapangma in 1964 (summited by a team from China). The two highest peaks, Everest (8,848 meters) and K2 (8,611 meters), were conquered in 1953 and 1954, respectively. The first teams to summit a mountain, not surprisingly, typically take the easiest route, usually determined from extensive surveying of the location including, in some cases in the pre-satellite imagery era, overflight by aircraft.

Once a team has won the race to be the “first” to reach a summit, additional innovation is required as the mountaineering focus shifts to other methods of reaching the same goal.  Most ascents are done in the springtime before the start of the monsoon, which brings unpredictable heavy winds and snows. Thus an alternative approach to summiting involves doing so in the winter, which increases the level of difficulty dramatically.  Indeed, three of the fourteen 8,000 meter and above peaks still have not been summited in winter (K2, Nanga Parbat, and Broad Peak). Other teams would look at a peak and identify an alternative approach to the summit, such as the North Face of Everest as opposed to the easier South Col.

Another approach would be to go up by one pathway and descend by another, which is extremely dangerous since the team cannot retrace its steps and mountain snow and ice conditions are constantly changing.  Many brave climbers choose to ascend without using supplemental oxygen, thus substantially increasing the difficulty of the effort. The net of this is that half a century after the great expeditions of the 1950s and 1960s, there are still teams working on “firsts” in terms of these great peaks in the Himalayas.

Innovation Approach

A frequent refrain in the innovation space is the lamenting by some that all the great things have already been invented, or that we are nearing the end of a great era of innovation. The high altitude mountaineers teach us that there are always new, creative ways to approach a problem and that the era of discovery can continue no matter how many teams have reached a summit. There are always meaningful alternative angles of attack for any challenge, and the key to finding those alternatives is to open one’s mind to the endless possibilities presented by the extreme nature of the challenge itself. In other words, the greater the challenge, the more likely there will be multiple ways of overcoming that obstacle.

5. Himalayan Mountaineering Aspect – Getting down is the hardest part

Many climbers say that the most difficult part of any expedition is getting down from the summit. While working towards the summit, the climbers are relatively fresh and focused on their objective. As the day grows longer and light diminishes, oxygen-depleted climbers sometimes make grave mistakes on their way down from the summit. Many of the deaths in the Himalayas occur on the way down, so successful attempts require just as intense of concentration on the trip down as on the trip up. In the case of the attempt on Everest by Mallory and Irvine, some scholars speculate that Mallory and Irvine achieved the summit (and indeed were the first to conquer Everest) but perished on the way down.

Innovation Approach

Like a mountaineering team ascending to the summit, it is easiest for those of us working in the innovation space to focus our time and energy on developing a new idea. The ideation phase of innovation is often the most exciting and energizing portion of the overall process. We are sometimes less enthused about the hard work of taking our idea and turning it into a new product or service, or in transforming a business process to improve operational efficiencies. In the case of the latter, the tedious work of convincing management to accept a process change, building a return on investment model, documenting the new process, communicating it to process participants, and following up to ascertain the success of the change pales in comparison to the exhilaration of identifying the solution to the big problem in the first place.


High altitude mountaineering presents numerous lessons for the modern innovator, though perhaps its greatest lesson is that of how human beings can respond to great challenges through innovation. Other than the handful of pioneers who trek to the depths of the ocean (albeit enclosed by sophisticated life-sustaining submarines), high altitude climbers demonstrate an amazing ability to survive and, indeed, accomplish great objectives, in the midst of adversity. Although a climber is supported by a large team using modern materials (fabric, plastics, lightweight steel ice picks, etc.), in the end there are still some humans who have climbed to the top of the highest mountain in the world without the assistance of supplemental oxygen.

The triumph of the human spirit amidst adversity harkens to another innovation theme, which is that sometimes innovation can thrive in challenging, difficult environments. Alexander Fields, an economic historian from Santa Clara University, notes that the Great Depression was “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.” Significant innovations rose to the surface despite the economic destruction of the period (harkening Shumpeter’s “Creative Destruction”). Innovators can derive interesting approaches to their craft by looking to the great challenges that humans have overcome.

Sources: 1. Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 2. Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 3. Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster (New York: Anchor Books, 1997). 4. David Wessel, “Checking the Economy’s Pulse,” Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2013, p. A7. image credit: theage

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

This entry was posted in Innovation, Leadership & Infrastructure, People & Skills, Strategy, collaboration and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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