The pointy end in the world of rock climbing is the end of the rope that the leader ties into before ascending the rock face. On the pointy end all the decisions are yours and so are the consequences. Its an exciting place to be if you’ve trained properly, set your goals clearly, have the right mind-set, the right equipment and the right team backing you up on belay. It’s a lot like life in fact.
In my years spent rock climbing in places like BC’s Squamish Valley and California’s Yosemite Valley, I’ve often reflected on how, indeed, rock climbing is a lot like life. Rock climbing, like many other outdoor pursuits, lends itself well to many metaphors about life and business principally because being in the natural world strips us down to our essential being, our essential needs and our essential relationships.
With that in mind I designed an exploration of some of the fundamental metaphors of life and business using a portable rock wall. I recently took that rock wall to the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre for a session with some participants of the 2010 BC Human Resources Management Association convention. My preference of course would have been to gather all my participants at the rock climbers’ mecca known as Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley but the logistics of that would have been a bit tricky. So we sacrificed the fleece and polypro and had to make do with business casual but my participants didn’t seem to mind and they threw themselves at the team challenge with great enthusiasm and spirit.
We separated the 30 or so participants into 3 teams and simulated a climb of the famous bottleneck on Mt Everest known as the Hilary Step. We threw in some decision making curve balls and some funny hats and the result was classic learning in action. The intention was to use the exercise to creatively explore metaphors for life and business. The word metaphor comes from the ancient Greek word meaning to transfer or carry across. So we left behind the traditional, literal meaning of the word metaphor that our Grade 8 English teacher taught us and instead looked for ways to apply, or carry across, our experience on the wall back to our personal and professional lives.
After each team successfully completed the activity we debriefed the learning. One participant drew a comparison of the exercise to the choice that intra-company departments have to either cooperate together or compete against each other for scarce resources. He was referring to the subtle decision about whether to damn the torpedos and get all his team up ‘Hilary Step’ first or cooperate and let other teams squeeze into the bottleneck. Another woman had an epiphany at the bottom of the wall as she coached and coaxed a team mate who was struggling up on the wall. She commented that she had never before been able to muster any empathy for colleagues facing fear in the workplace but here at the wall she was full of empathy and encouragement for a team mate experiencing the same emotions but in a different context. She commented that she would be re-evaluating her reactions at work.
It’s always a deeply satisfying experience to see learners in any context step outside their comfort zone in a physically and emotionally safe environment and try on new ways of being, new behaviours, new attitudes and reflect on the results. It certainly seemed to me that this was what was going on at the pointy end in my workshop.
My workshop at the 2010 BCHRMA conference was part of a larger effort of mine to expand out the ‘Metaphors for life and business’ concept into a series of workshops for those interested in further and deeper explorations of these metaphors. I’m currently developing 3 workshops using wilderness settings as a backdrop. Our ‘Metaphors’ series will take us aboard a classic 45 foot schooner in Georgia Strait, by kayak on Vancouver Island’s west coast and surfing in Todos Santos on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Ok, I’ll admit I’ve got some skeptics who don’t believe you can do anything productive for your company while on the bridge of a sailboat, in the seat of a kayak or riding the right break at Los Cerritos other than come back refreshed. But with over 20 years teaching leaders how to lead in wilderness settings I’m convinced you can. It all has to do with helping participants carry across their learning from the natural world to that other world that some people insist on calling the ‘real’ one. If you’re already imagining some of the metaphors we’ll be exploring in each of the workshops mentioned above, I’d love to hear from. If you were a participant on the portable rock wall, I’d also love to hear about any metaphors you’ve brought back to your personal or professional life. And be sure to check out the great video that my colleague Jenny has posted on You Tube about the workshop at the BCHRMA conference!