As T.S. Eliot once said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
You might ask yourself what scenario planning in business has to do with climbing, and I would not blame you. However, business leaders can find all kinds of lessons from the most unlikely sources. When you think about risky activities like mountaineering, base jumping and heli-skiing, where being disaster-proof depends on how well you manage environmental uncertainty and internal team complexity, scenario planning is a tool worth exploring.
Setting a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG)
Setting a future goal is essential to success in business and mountaineering alike. I’ve had the good fortune of climbing some of the world's well-known peaks. These have included the Matterhorn in Switzerland, Mt Blanc in France, Mt Rainier in the U.S. and Aconcagua in Argentina, to name a few. But I’d like to share my most challenging summit attempt, which is also the best example of applying scenario planning and future thinking: Mt McKinley in Alaska.
I’d always wanted to climb North America’s highest peak, at 20,320 ft. Finally, in 2013, I got my chance. I joined an international climbing team consisting of three very experienced guides and seven climbers from the USA, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
Plan like your life depends on it
Preparation for McKinley involved months of meticulous advanced planning, including equipment and food management, thinking through all possible future eventualities and associated risks and a gruelling personal physical training regime in the Canadian Rockies. Once ready, the team flew into this remote region by snow plane and landed at base camp, on the intimidating Kahiltna glacier. That is how our epic expedition in Alaska began.
Using signals to monitor for uncertainty and complexity
Over the next three weeks through six different camps and miles of big expansive terrain, we progressively scaled up the mountain, 'climbing high and sleeping low,' as they say. As we advanced, we carefully monitored key warning signals like weather, team health, food and fuel supplies, equipment, the presence of other climbing teams, and the changing snow and ice conditions. Like mountaineering, successful businesses always watch for those all-important economic, competitor and customer signals to anticipate when to react and adapt to stay ahead.
For me, the hardest part of the McKinley expedition was carrying the big 100 pound load, divided between my pack and a sled that I would love to hate for the next few weeks of life on the mountain (yes, I kicked it several times out of love!). Unlike Everest, Aconcagua and other peaks, where Sherpas carried equipment, on McKinley you are 100% self-sufficient. Our internal team complexity, similar in some ways to organizational complexity, was that we were constantly carrying food and gear between camps, often at night, to take advantage of the freeze-thaw cycles and avoid crevasse and avalanche risks.
Another complexity occurred about a week in, as we approached 14,000 feet, when we started to feel the altitude just as the real climbing began. From 14,000 feet, we climbed the fixed lines leading to a massive ridge with 3,000 foot drops on either side and the high camp, at 17,000 feet. Our lead climbing guides constantly evaluated the internal and external conditions as we progressed.
In business, it is often the problems you don’t anticipate that are the most crippling and can be right within the organization. A lack of manufacturing capacity, gaps in employee capabilities, poor quality performance, or an underperforming product line can quickly bring things to a standstill.
Keeping a sharp focus on the end game
Following several days' rest at the high camp, we made our first push to the summit, up what’s called the “Autoban” (so named because of the many European climbers who have perished here due to not clipping into the running belays).
There are always obstacles in mountaineering and business that can halt progress toward your desired goal. For me, on McKinley, that was about to come into sharp focus. After hours of climbing during the final thrust to the top, it quickly became very nerve-racking. Only 300 feet from the summit we were stopped due to an electrical snowstorm, complete with lightning. This was a risk and uncertainty that played out in real-time, and it was a perilous situation to be in. Fortunately, we’d planned for this and carefully monitored weather signposts constantly. Our rapid response was to quickly move all teams from the summit ridge to a nearby flat area for safety. Understanding there is safety in numbers, we decided to team up with several other climbers move further down the mountain to camp 5. In doing so, we put into play our strategy if we encountered dangerously bad weather.
We eventually got down to the high camp. Because we had different contingency plans in place, we had the proper strategic preparation, including extra food, fuel, and time should something like this occur (in business, we would call these organizational shock absorbers or business resiliency). After a meeting to discuss our options, we recharged for one day before deciding on a second attempt at the summit.
The second time around was even more demanding and among the hardest things I've ever done. Still, I wanted to get to the top and not waste eight months of training and sacrifice. After 11 hours of climbing in cold conditions and high winds, we made it to the summit at 4.33 pm on the 28th of June. We took those last few steps into thin air and reached the peak. What a relief!
Building resilience to weather the storm
This was a genuine expedition with a team of resilient climbers working together. In one of the world’s most remote and harsh environments, we were watching each other’s backs; climbing through various stages of ascent with detailed options analysis, scenario and contingency planning; enduring weeks of carrying heavy loads and dragging sleds between camps and constructing snow camps and snow walls; and surviving a huge storm.
In both business and mountaineering, success is about embracing the fear of the unknown through planning the execution and executing the plan.
Throughout my life journey, I’ve successfully climbed different mountains, both figuratively and literally, and the funny thing is I’ve enjoyed the process of planning and getting to the top as much as being there. While we can’t always mitigate those risks in our path — some with more disastrous consequences than others — we can reconfirm our commitment to ambitious goal-setting, meticulous planning, watching for key signals, and staying the course through relentless focus, as if our business (and our lives) depended on it.
Authored by Lance Mortlock
Senior EY Strategy Partner | Haskayne School of Business Visiting Professor | Author