“I think Everest is a magical mountain with magnetic qualities,” said Alan Arnette, Montaineer & respected Everest blogger. “It’s like a light to bugs that attracts people once they hear about it.”
This sentiment will have a familiar ring to anyone who has spoken with a senior executive about making their large company more successfully innovative and seen the gleam in their eyes. Just as many mountain climbers are drawn to the glory and reward of a successful Everest ascent, an increasing number of corporate executives recognize the need to evolve their organizations and position them for continued growth and adaptability in an ever-changing world. Successfully pulling off this difficult feat would solidly establish their leadership legacy.
But the journey to a successful Everest ascent is filled with discomfort and danger, as is the corporate innovation journey. As corporate innovators, we can learn from the Everest experience. Here are five ways corporate innovation is similar to climbing Mt. Everest.
1) Investment – A trip for one person up Mt. Everest can cost over $100K. Corporations also need to invest in their innovation efforts. The outlays can be big or small. You might need to invest in or acquire a promising start-up to push your business forward. Or you might want to inspire your employees to create the next big thing. Adobe created a DIY innovation platform for their employees that gives intrapreneurs a $1K, no-questions-asked gift card to experiment with their ideas.
2) Commitment – Aspring Everest climbers get themselves into peak physical and mental condition before embarking on the dangerous journey. Corporate leaders who want to successfully transform their organizations need to transform themselves first. Traditionally, senior leaders create a vision, dictate the actions that will achieve the vision and rely on their teams to execute. Corporate culture isn’t usually intentional, but a by-product of personalities and path. But the most senior job in a successfully innovative organization is different. Ed Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation said, “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture – one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable they became – wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.” It starts with the most senior leaders role modeling the behaviors they want to see .
3) Balance your risk – Everest climbers have evaluated the risk vs. reward equation and feel that they can overcome the risks, most often with experience and careful preparation. Several years ago, I saw a TED-type talk about risk where a guy who jumped off cliffs for Red Bull explained that he didn’t see his job as risky. I thought he was insane, but he felt that he took the appropriate precautions to de-risk his job. Corporate Innovation is risky. Just like the most popular paths on Everest can be littered with the frozen bodies of those who didn’t make it, many of us can think of our own innovation graveyard or a visible casualty from another organization. Google Glass, anyone? So how do you protect yourself against the very present risks?
4) Preparation – Some climbers prepare for their Everest ascent by climbing 7 lesser, but still challenging peaks, so they better understand the type of terrain they’ll be facing. By climbing those mountains, they learn how to strategize and troubleshoot in (slightly) less dangerous environments. In the corporate world, it is also important to understand the terrain you’ll be facing. Here are a few key questions to think about before you dive in (but there are many more): What types of innovation are you going to pursue? Moonshots or creative, but incremental improvements to what you already do? What difficulties have innovation attempts in your company had previously? What will success look like and how long do you have to get there? Who do you absolutely need on your side and what will be required to recruit them?
5) Experience & Best Practices – There are many paths up Mt. Everest, but most people (and the successful ones) select from the paths that have been successful for others. If you are climbing Mt. Everest, you are probably going to start your climb from the Base Camps that have already been established. Everest’s governing body also requires that climbers hire a Sherpa, an experienced guide, to lead the climbing party. The stakes are so high and the path so treacherous at the best of times, that best practices are crucial for success. It is not unusual to see people new to corporate innovation balk at the constraints of design thinking, Lean Start-Up or Agile processes. “Isn’t innovation about creativity?”, they ask. Yes, that is a part of it. But like the ascent up Mt. Everest, it’s also about survival. Success in the corporate innovation world means taking the most direct path to create value for your organization. Start your climb from base camp. And hire a Sherpa.
Debbie Schwartz is the Head Sherpa at Blank Page Advisory, a innovation strategy consultancy that helps organizations navigate corporate innovation.