When looking for advice on building high performance we often look to successful people, successful events, and successful companies. However, don’t overlook the study of failure as this can be a great teacher. Obviously, it can teach us what not to do, but with analysis and contemplation, we can develop positive strategies from what happened.
One of my greatest learning opportunities was during an expedition to climb one of the world’s tallest mountains. The expedition environment, as I say in my keynote presentations, is a very rich learning environment provided that your eyes and mind are open to see it.
When I was climbing Everest there was a researcher from Harvard sharing our basecamp. He was conducting a study for NASA on conflict resolution techniques to be used with astronauts on the International Space Station. The theory was that high altitude climbers live in a similar world to astronauts on the ISS. High altitude expeditions are filled with danger, complexity, strong and often ego-driven personalities, intense pressure and stress and constant change. It is difficult to study astronauts, but climbers are more accessible. By observing these climbers and interviewing them they were digging into human behaviour in this unique environment and taking stock of what worked and what did not work when conflict arose.
My story of learning from conflict comes from a mountain not far from Everest. It is one of the 14 mountains in the world above 8000m and climbing it requires entering the accurately named “Death Zone”. A dramatic title for sure, but it is exactly what it says it is. If you venture into the Death Zone for too long you will die. And too long it not long at all, it is 2-4 days and lights out!
I joined a team of highly experienced and strong climbers all who had a strong passion for climbing and all who wanted to summit this mountain. I had never met any of these people in the past, but this is not uncommon in climbing and in life. We do not always get to choose our teammates but are often just assembled a team of strangers with similar skills and desires. When looking at our resumes we were the perfect team and success should come to us with no problem. However, it did not work out this way.
In the end, not a single person made it to the summit and it had nothing to do with bad weather, lack of skill or experience, or desire. We failed because we were not able to work together as a team. At the time this was devastation, but when I look back upon this expedition now I see it as one of the biggest learning experiences of my life and it was the event that taught me to look for learning in success AND failure.
For various reasons that I won’t get into here, we became a group of selfish strangers. We never really got to know and bond with one another and each person’s focus was on their personal success. Yes we all wanted the entire team to succeed and nobody want anyone of us to be injured or killed, but if only one person were to be successful it was to be “ME”. This very selfish environment fostered a lack of trust and this stifled communication. There was, therefore, no commitment and accountability.
In the next blog, I will share one of the models I have developed as a result of this failure and it is this model that is critical for building high performance in teams.