Reaching the peak

You can also call this post “ Every idiot can begin something new”

I have never climbed mountains. My wife used to. She always believed that mountain climbing or rock climbing is one sport that can teach a lot to leaders and managers. Consider:

  • It’s not enough to reach the top; how you climb is also important.
  • Do not climb with a partner you don’t trust.
  • If you want to reach the summit, you have to let go of that nice, safe grip you have now.

As if these points are not confirmation enough, it appears that Jim Collins is one of the best rock-climbers around and he swears by the lessons rock climbing can teach to the business world. Fast Company had an article with him back in 2003 where he describes some lessons businesses can learn.

Climb to fallure, not failure. The difference is subtle, but it is all the difference in the world. In fallure, you still do not get up the route, but you never let go. In fallure you fall; in failure you let go. Going to fallure means full commitment to go up–even if the odds of success are less than 20%, 10%, or even 5%. You leave nothing in reserve, no mental or physical resource untapped. In fallure, you never give yourself a psychological out: “Well, I didn’t really give it everything. . . . I might have made it with my best effort.” In fallure, you always give your full best–despite the fear, pain, lactic acid, and uncertainty. To the outside observer, failure and fallure look similar (you fly through the air in both cases), but the inner experience of fallure is totally different from that of failure.

And then there was another article Fast Company did way back in 1998, which is still highly relevant in terms of lessons from climbing by Arlene Blum. According to FC, Arlene Blum has made more than 300 successful ascents, including the first all-woman climb to the top of Denali, the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition, as well as a 2,400-mile trek across Bhutan, Nepal, and India.

There is one point she made which resonated strongly with my beliefs: Finishing is rare. Anybody can begin something that excites them; but business is not about beginning, business is about winning and to win, you have to finish. I can think of at least 2 projects where we made a great beginning and finished with a whimper. About 5 years back, we started a business in Germany to take advantage of a new product and new customers. The beginning was great with the customer giving us close to a 100,000 euros of business per month. However, we sucked at exploiting this huge advantage and lost touch with the customer. And as it usually happens in such stories, the customer moved on and within 4 months we closed down the subsidiary because we could not generate more than 1000 euros of business in any single month.

One year back, we entered Italy with a set of partners we had never met before. Once again we began with a bang in TV, catalogs and call centers and 6 months later the business stalled because we just did not have the time or the interest to manage it actively.

So what does this mean? Whether it is starting a new business, or a job or even a project, you have to be sure that you will see it through and work to fallure (see the note from Jim Collins) not to failure. Do not begin a business if you are not ready to burn for it. Closing down a business is one of the most difficult tasks you are likley to face. And there is never a right time to close down the business; every leader/owner who cares about the business will never pull the plug too soon. It will always be a couple of months too late. I should know, I helped close down 2 businesses in the last 12 months.

As Arlene says,

“In so many of the things we do in life – from projects at work to household chores to climbing a mountain – we find reasons not to do the last 5%. With a Himalayan expedition, you spend years raising funds, you travel all the way to Nepal, you carry loads between camps for six weeks. Then, finally, it’s summit day and you’re hours from the top – but it’s too cold, it’s too steep, or you’re too tired.

“I’ve been so successful in my climbing because I usually haven’t turned back during that final, exhausting 5%. Making it to the top isn’t about a final sprint; it’s about maintaining your rhythm – even if that rhythm is five breaths for every one step. That kind of focus means that you’re more likely to have the energy to deal with unforeseen challenges – and less likely to lose sight of why you’re climbing the mountain in the first place.”

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