Trends and insights making an impact in your digital transformation journey

Agile transformation versus climbing a mountain
Stephen de Villiers Graaff
Agile Coach and Consultant, DVT

Agile transformation versus climbing a mountain

Agility is a journey, not a destination

As an agile coach and consultant, I have often compared the challenge of transforming an organisation to the daunting yet ultimately rewarding adventure of mountain climbing.

There are in fact many parallels to be drawn between the two. Before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest on the morning of May 29, 1953, the feat was considered impossible. Many before tried, and died, not unlike the many organisations that had started on the road to transformation only to fail spectacularly.

In the words of American author Frank Herbert, “a beginning is a very delicate time.” At the very start of the Everest ascent climbers have to ford the Khumbu Icewall, a vast, treacherous glacier pocked by hundred-foot crevasses and a shifting, creaking, icy surface. So difficult is this challenge that many expeditions begin and end at the Icewall before they even reach the climb proper.

Similarities again abound with agile transformation. In many cases the will is there, the plans are there, but organisations fail because they didn’t understand how delicate the start of the journey could be.

One of the most infamous attempts to summit Everest came almost three decades prior to Hillary’s, when English explorer George Mallory disappeared on his third expedition to the mountain. Presumed dead, Mallory’s fate was only confirmed 75 years later, when his frozen remains were found a mere one hundred metres from the summit.

So many organisations make valiant attempts at the feat, and yet so many fall short, often only just. There are many reasons for failure, and most of them can be traced back to the pitfalls both organisations and mountain climbers should avoid at all costs:

  • Doing it alone – when you’re climbing a mountain (particularly a very large one), always take a guide with you, someone who’s lived and breathed that mountain and can carry some of the burden for you. Likewise, no matter how prepared you think you are for an agile transformation, find someone with broad knowledge and experience of the journey that lies ahead, but remember that the desire to climb – as it is to transform – must be there to begin with. Your guide can’t climb the mountain for you.
  • Lack of preparation – the journey to the summit is so extreme it takes months, sometimes years, of meticulous mental and physical preparation. Attempting a transformation without the necessary training is futile; you must ensure that everyone on your team has the same focus, is on the same page, and completely understands the value behind the mechanics, long before you take your first step.
  • Breaking the rules before you understand them – while intuitive improvisation is commendable, adapting or breaking the basic rules before fully comprehending them can be fatal when you’re thousands of feet from the ground. There are more than 200 frozen bodies on Everest alone, many which are used as waypoints to guide expeditions up the mountain. There are just as many failed organisations that serve as waypoints for agile coaches today.
  • Tools over mindset – as a climber you can have the most sophisticated and expensive tools available, but if you don’t have the right mindset your chances of reaching the summit are slim. Without the right mindset, belief and focus, getting to where you need to be is mentally and physically impossible. Focus instead on the principles and philosophy behind the framework – the frameworks themselves are just the tools that you’ll need on the way.
  • Complacency – The path to Everest’s summit is constantly in motion, one of the most unstable and inhospitable landscapes on Earth. Your journey to transformation, while not quite as life threatening, will likely also be in a constant state of motion. You’ll need to be steady and focused while your world – your business – shifts around you. One complacent misstep could instantly end your ambitions.

For all the mystery and danger, the world’s mountains have been conquered by many, just like some of the world’s largest organisations have transformed themselves to success with agile.

There are many pathways to success, but only a few special traits that are shared among them:

  • Have a base camp – every successful expedition has a team director who takes the pulse of the mountain and relays critical information to the climbers from base camp. Agile transformations have their own team directors – mentors and project sponsors who offer advice, listen and guide. None of us is smarter than all of us, as the Japanese proverb suggests. Find a group of people who have their fingers on the ‘pulse’ of the organisation and can help and guide you through the process.
  • Slow down to speed up – the oxygen level at the Everest summit is one third of that at sea level. It’s physically impossible to summit the mountain in one direct attempt. Most climbers will ascend to the first camp before descending, then to the second before descending, until they acclimatise their bodies to the lack of oxygen for the final attempt at the summit. This continual cycle can be compared to the continual education your team will need as the business landscape shifts and changes through transformation. Sometimes you need to reduce your workload in order to progress and to create a sustainable and predictable outcome.
  • Be brave – just like climbers that face incomprehensible odds on a mountain, a transforming organisation needs to be fearless. As a coach, if there’s one thing I could remove from an organisation at the start of its journey, it’s fear. Look to the example of Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind person to reach the Everest summit. Actions bound by fear are bound to fail.
  • Prepare – if you don’t believe it, you won’t be believable. You want your first experience of crossing a steel ladder in studded boots to be on a flat and even surface, not hundreds of feet in the air above a creaking glacier. Believing in the journey means preparing for the journey, or in the words of Viktor Frankl, “What is to give light must endure burning”.
  • Know who you are – if you’ve been to the summit you need to be able to guide and encourage and lead others to do the same. Some day you’re the sherpa and some days you’re the climber. Learn wherever – and from whomever – you can.

When Hillary and Norgay returned from Everest, one of the first questions they were asked was: “Who was first?”. Both refused to answer, because the answer was irrelevant – one could not have made the summit without the other.

It was not by accident that they made it either, but rather their mindset, their teamwork and their togetherness. They conquered something that had no set path, where every step was a challenge and many a challenge was a surprise.

Alison Levine, a famous mountaineer, reached the Everest summit eight years after her first attempt. She later said, “sometimes it’s the people who stumbled, who’ve been beaten and bruised and have taken risks that achieve the most.”

As you embark on your organisation’s journey, keep in mind that we all grow and learn at our own pace, we all reach the summit in our own time. Never give up; even in the face of failure, you always learn.