Conquered but not tamed – team effectiveness at Mt. Everest

May 29, 2014

61 years ago, on May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, arriving just before noon after spending the night high on the mountain.

The anniversary brings to mind another May (1996) expedition on Everest which ended in deadly disaster.  The details of what went wrong in that May 43 years after Hillary and Norgay’s triumph are recounted by John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (one of the recommended books on decision-making in The Library in St.Pete.)

In the author’s retelling, a series of events led to several climbers inexplicably ignoring the “Two O’Clock Rule,” which says:  if not at the summit by 2:00, turn back because “darkness is not your friend.”   Their descent occurred at night, in a blizzard, as they ran out of supplemental oxygen.  5 people died and others barely escaped with their lives after many hours wandering in the dark while braving subzero temperatures.

That series of events was analyzed by Professor Michael Roberto in a 2002 paper entitled “Lessons from Everest.”  It had struck Professor Roberto that “the disastrous consequences had more to do with individual cognition and group dynamics than with the tactics of mountain climbing.”  He found several factors that caused experienced people to violate their better judgment.

Cognitive biases

3 cognitive biases came into play:

1. Sunk Cost Fallacy:  The magnitude of the personal investment – $70,000 and weeks of agony – made many reluctant to turn back once so close to the peak.  “Above 26,000 feet the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin.”

2. Overconfidence bias:  The lead guides had impressive track records of success and had overcome adverse conditions before.  One told his team, “We’ve got the Big E figured out.  We’ve got it totally wired.  These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a Yellow Brick Road to the summit.”   He also “believe(d) 100% I’m coming back” because “I’m going to make all the right choices.”  The overconfidence extended to many other climbers as well.  Krakauer wonders if they weren’t “clinically delusional.”

3. Recency Effect:  Paying too much attention to recent events.  Climbers had encountered good weather on the mountain in recent years so many of the climbers thought the storm was surprising but in fact it was rather typical.

Team Effectiveness

The team lacked the ‘robust social systems’ in which members’ informal  modus operandi ensure that the decision-making process functions properly.

1. Climbers were almost strangers and had not had time to develop trusting relationships.

2. Group members did not feel comfortable expressing dissenting views, in part because one expedition leader had stated, “I will tolerate no dissension up there… my word will be absolute law.”  (Sadly, to protect everyone via enforcement of the Two O’Clock Rule.)

3. There was an absence of candid discussion due to (a) the deference in the “guide-client protocol” and (b) a pecking order amongst the guides that led “lesser” ones to keep their concerns to themselves.

Complex Interactions and Tight Coupling

Very briefly, “the team fell behind schedule and encountered the dangerous storm because of a complex set of interactions among a customs problem in Russia, Scott Fischer’s acclimatization routine in Nepal, a Montenegrin expedition’s use of rope, a failed negotiation with Outside magazine, and so on.”  There was also no slack in the system, so when there was a problem in one area it triggered failure in another.

The bottom line may be that they violated a sacrosanct rule, but the more interesting question is why?  The unwillingness to question team procedures and exchange ideas openly prevented the group from revising and improving their plans as conditions changed.

Though the stakes are (much) smaller in a high-growth company, an entrepreneur faces similar challenges:  he has a team and a plan, faces a fast-changing environment, and the odds might be long.  Success hinges on creating an environment of mutual accountability in which team members trust and challenge each other.

 

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