Climbing is one of the most collaborative sports around, offering up a lot of lessons for those with their feet on the ground in business. Climbers will literally put their lives in each other’s hands, however, it is not trust that underpins climbing’s collaborative culture. It is an unrelenting shared purpose; the drive to push the limits of ability.
At an individual level climbers want to push their own limits and be the best they can be, mentally and physically. At a collective level, the climbing community wants to push the limits of human ability, taking on feats never before even dreamed of. The recent first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, provides a great example of this shared purpose, clearly demonstrating to the world how climbers everywhere celebrate such achievements together, as one tribe.
While Dawn Wall was a remarkable accomplishment, in the climbing world this story is far from rare. In fact, the story of dreaming big, working hard and eventually succeeding against all odds, is the most well-told story in the climbing world. Furthermore, it is this powerful process of celebrating and retelling stories, which reinforces the shared goal of pushing limits.
The lesson here for those in business, is that collaboration critically depends on having a strong empowering shared purpose, which everyone can contribute to (even if it’s just on an individual level). If everyone can contribute, then everyone feels invested in accomplishments and celebrates as one. Importantly, the climbing world is also a tribute to the power of storytelling. It highlights how if organisations want to inspire passion for the shared goal leaders and employees alike must hear and retell stories of people working hard for the challenging goal and succeeding.
For me, the greatest and most unexpected demonstration of collaboration in climbing came when I went to my first bouldering competition. Bouldering is rock climbing on shorter routes, so you don’t need ropes or harnesses. To give some context, bouldering competitions are held using artificial walls, with the six most successful climbers from qualifying going through to compete in the final. To win, an athlete must complete the most routes in the fewest number of attempts.
The 5 routes in the final are uniquely designed for that final and constructed after qualifying, while competitors are in an isolation room. Once the new routes are ready, all the competitors are released from the holding room and given 5 minutes to look at the new problems. As the routes have never been seen before, let alone climbed, this planning time is key.
Given this, what surprised me was that the climbers do not come out from isolation and individually work on possible strategies. They work together; sharing ideas, observations and tactics. This approach seemed very counter-intuitive, why on earth would you share your precious tactical knowledge with someone you are competing against?
The reason is simple. Competing in the climbing world is not about doing what’s necessary to win, it’s a platform for ‘pushing limits’ and inspiring others to do the same. Collectively, the athlete’s will come up with a better solution than they could do alone. Sure, winning would be great but seeing everyone challenge what’s possible is even better.
Again, this comes down to having an inspiring shared purpose, but it is also about having a culture which nurtures the practice of working together, to achieve more than you could alone. In training, climbers will spend hours together puzzling over the best way to tackle a route. So while working together in competition seems counterintuitive, it actually just comes down to what your goals are and how you train. In business, for true collaboration to occur, organisations need to learn from this sport and encourage employees to really prioritise and believe in the shared goal. By embracing the opportunity to work together, you will have the chance to push performance, achieving more as a team than you could individually.
3 key messages for collaboration:
1. Shared purpose is essential to successful collaboration
Without a shared purpose there is no reason to collaborate, no glue to keep people working together. In an organisation, you need to have one strong shared purpose to make all employees feel like ‘one tribe,’ working together for one goal.
2. An organisations shared purpose needs to be both inspiring and accessible
If the purpose is not inspiring, it will be hard for employees to really get passionate about it. It is equally important that everyone is able to contribute, so that they feel personally invested in the goal and celebrate in shared achievements.
3. Nurture employees collaborative behaviour
Climbers do not reach a bouldering final and decide to collaborate, they have been learning to work together to get results since their first day in the sport. Just as the climbing community nurtures a collaborative culture, organisations must grow their own collaborative employees from day one.