Climbing Mountains and Wells

Innovating upon something already in existence requires change.  The road to that change can be faster or slower, but there's always a journey to be had.  If you're lucky, it may be an easy path you take, but it's much more likely to be one with lots of obstacles, dips, and dead ends along the way. 

When I look back upon the things I've embarked upon to create change in the world, one thing stands out: the journey always took much longer than projected.  If that journey was something akin to climbing a big mountain, I spent more time navigating the approach to the base of the mountain than summiting the peak, if you will.  I rarely if ever planned for this "flat" part of the trip.  The mountain peak is so seductive, so sexy — it's where you want to end up, so you focus on what it will take to scale the verticals.  But as it turns out, it's the long walk to the base of the mountain that's the hardest part.  It's about perseverance more than strength.

Innovating something, be it a stand alone product or a massively interconnected system, involves many more days of getting to the peak than it does scaling the peak.  This is because there are so many pitfalls along the way — so it always feels like you're climbing something.  Climbing a mountain face or a well, it feels the same: steep, slippery, and difficult. As it turns out, a lot of that climbing happens because you've stumbled into a crevasse or a well, and you have to find your way out before you can get back to your mission of walking to the mountain.  It can't be helped; if you're innovating, by definition you're venturing out through the dark unknown, so of course you'll stumble and fall and have to pick yourself up.

While there were lots of hard points, in any difficult project I've done there was also more joy and camaraderie to be had along the way than I ever dared hope for.  This is key.  Whether it's Orville and Wilbur figuring out how to make man fly, or it's you tweaking the messaging on a web site in the middle of the night, you need the help of friends and colleagues.  Not only can they help pull you out of a crevasse, but they can help you see that you weren't yet on the mountain.  And that you need to keep walking. 

Understanding the difference between a mountain and a well?  Priceless.

1 thought on “Climbing Mountains and Wells

  1. Nice parallel with mountaineering!! I do both: innovation and mountaineering and have used the same parallel when explaining the roles of risk, ambiguity, uncertainty and the relevance of planning for dealing and managing their souces.
    There are other interesting things: most times you climb with a goal in mind (the summit) but without actually seeing it, and not knowing how close you are. Everest, for example…you only see the South Summit, and that can be dangerously deceiving. Similar things happen when a team gets anchor in a particular idea. Camaraderie in its extreme form, the lack of medals or heroes, etc.
    One of the masters used to say that the worst danger in the mountain lies on the fact that men forgot what is like to live in total freedom. Similar things happen when we are designing, and canont get rid of our experiences, mental models, etc.
    Just came back from Nepal two weeks ago…it was indeed priceless 🙂

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