A Movie About Heavy and Slow

Patrick Hollingworth
October 12, 2015

Where and Who Do You Learn From?

Some of you may have had the chance to check out the Everest movie playing in cinemas at the moment.

For the most part, it’s a pretty realistic rendering of what it’s like up there. Sure, there were a few scenes which were a bit overly-dramatised and unrealistic but otherwise they pretty much nailed it, from both the “is it really that full-on?” and the “does it really look like that?” perspectives.

The official Everest preview.

In case you’ve been buried under an avalanche for the past 19 years, in May 1996 the world’s most publicised mountaineering disaster occurred on Mount Everest.

In the space of a few weeks, 13 climbers lost their lives, including eight in one night, and due to emergent satellite phone technology and daily updates to NBC, the events played out in front of the world’s media.

At last count, and in addition to the Everest movie, there have literally been hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, 11 books, one genuinely excellent IMAX documentary, a truly terrible made-for-TV movie, two TV documentaries and a pop song (The Climber, by Kiwi songwriter Neil Finn) all focussed on, or, in the case of the song, ‘inspired by’ the events of Everest in 1996.

Nearly two decades after the events occurred, it still captures people’s imagination.

And what is perhaps even more surprising, is that the disaster has become a widely examined case study for MBA students at business schools around the world.

It’s been picked over by various academics, and five academic papers and one business book has been written about it. Three of these papers have even been published by the esteemed business journal the Harvard Business Review. Indeed, two American professors have to a large part built their careers around their interpretation and analysis of these events, and what businesses can learn from them.


The problem is this.

These studies, as good as they are, were looking at the wrong type of mountaineering. The truth of the matter is that learning from the events of Mount Everest in 1996 is about as useful for organisations in today’s VUCA world as it would be to learn about how to drive a Tesla car from shovelling coal into an 1850s American steam train.

The reality of most modern day commercial mountaineering expeditions is this: adventure tourists, or passengers, posing as team members who, to be ruthlessly honest, are in it for themselves. The success of others is relatively arbitrary.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go. Yes, this is what Heavy and Slow looks like. Kinda ungraceful, and actually incredibly exposed to risk.

There is very little here of relevance for organisations in the New World, who must look to the collaborative commercial space for survival, rather than survival of the fittest.

The reality is the climbers in those teams on Everest were no more teammates than are the passengers of Flight QF 10 on the daily trans-pacific flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Despite them having the same end-goal of getting to their destination, whether that is the summit of Everest or the taxi rank at LAX, they were not team members in the sense we apply to work and organisations.

They had each individually purchased their places on the expedition and the plane. They were each reliant upon professional guides and support staff to get them to where they wanted to go: to the summit of Everest, or perhaps some would say more of a challenge, through a long-haul flight and the death-march that is customs and immigration in LA.

The climbing approach employed by commercial expeditions, did have relevance to the organisations of the old world order, where relative stability and certainty were the norm, and where rigid structure, top-down control, and a dependence upon infrastructure could be used to overcome challenges. There is however no relevance to organisations in the new world order, where uncertainty and complexity are the norm.

The question that I’m getting you to think about here is this:

From where or from whom in your life are you learning?

Wherever or whoever it may be, just make sure that it’s relevant for the new world order, and not stuck in the past.

It will make all the difference.