In June 2017, climber Alex Honnold became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes.  If that feat alone isn’t amazing enough, he made the climb in 4 hours, when the climbing guides describe it as a four DAY climb.

Coverage of the climb made me think of what it takes to manage in the face of complexity. When you find yourself in a situation that is volatile, unpredictable, with many elements that interact in unknown ways, you may find yourself thinking “I don’t know what to do”.  In that situation the trick is to be clear on the direction, while recognising you can’t know the precise steps that will take you there.

It’s a bit like I imagine rock climbing to be.  The climber knows the direction – up!  And the destination – to the top!  But a climber facing a new climb doesn’t know exactly how to get there.  Yet, they don’t stay at the bottom of the climb until they have solved the problem. Rather, they start.  They go up.  They head in the direction.

And on the way, they will often be wrong.   A new climb will lead them up false paths. Sometimes they may end up going down rather than up. Sometimes they will need to back track and make another choice.  But they are constantly learning and always clear about the direction they want to go.

The climber on an unfamiliar face is an experimenter.  She hypothesises: “If I follow that crack it should get me around that face”.  She conducts the experiment by following the crack and testing her hunch.  If it seems to be working she will keep moving forward and up. If it runs out, she will either return or strike out in another direction.

That’s the essence of managing in the face of complexity.  Identify the direction: we want to ensure the waterway is healthier and more suitable for all users.  Then test the ‘leads’. Follow those cracks that might take you to the top.  They won’t all be successful, but by experimenting your way forward you stand a good chance of getting where you need to go.

Alex Honnold had to use this approach even on such a well-mapped and well-known climb as El Capitan.  There were a couple of places where he had to leave the route and find his own way up.  Despite not knowing, he managed to make progress and smash every preconception about what it takes to achieve the goal.

So, you don’t have to leave the ground to experience the thrill of climbing.  Go forth and experiment your way to success.