Incremental Progress and Rock Climbing



Last week Ovum and @SarahBurnett were kind enough to invite me to speak at their Business Intelligence Masterclass in London.

Unfortunately one of the Ovum presenters, Madan Sheina, was ill, but Sarah did a great job running the session. The set up of the room and the number of delegates both encouraged interaction and there was a great atmosphere with lots of questions from the attendees and some interesting exchanges of ideas. Work commitments meant that I had to leave after lunch, which was a shame as I am sure that – based on what I saw in the morning – the afternoon workshops sessions would have been both entertaining and productive.

I certainly enjoyed my presentation – on Initiating and Developing a BI Strategy – which focussed on both my framework for success in Business Intelligence and, in particular, addressing the important cultural transformation aspects of these. Thank you also to the delegates both for the questions and observations and for kindly awarding my talk an 83% rating via the now ubiquitous seminar questionnaire.

Bouldering and Cultural Transformation

Boysen's Groove (V3/4) Dinas Mot, North Wales
My partner bouldering the classic Boysen’s Groove in Snowdonia

As part of my section on change management, I covered some of the themes that I introduced in my article Perseverance. In this I spoke about one of the types of rock climbing that I enjoy; bouldering. Bouldering is regular rock climbing on steroids, it is about climbing ultra-hard, but short climbs; often on boulders – hence the name. I compared the level of commitment and persistence required for success in bouldering to the need for the same attributes in change management initiatives.

I spoke to a few different delegates about this analogy during a coffee break. One in particular came up with an interesting expansion on my rock climbing theme. He referred to how people engaged in mountaineering and multi-pitch rock climbing make progress in a series of stages, establishing a new base at a higher point before attempting the next challenge. He went on to link this to making incremental progress on IT projects. I thought this was an interesting observation and told the gentleman in question that he had provided the inspiration for a future blog article.

An introduction to lead climbing

The above video is excerpted from the introduction to Hard Grit a classic 1998 climbing film by Slackjaw productions. It features climbing on the Gritstone (a type of hard sandstone) edges of the UK’s Peak District. This famous sequence shows a pretty horrendous fall off of a Peak District test piece called Gaia at Black Rocks. Amazingly the climber received no worse injuries than a severely battered and lacerated leg. Despite its proximity to my home town of London, Gritstone climbing has never been my cup of tea – it is something of an acquired taste and one that I have never appreciated as much as its many devotees.

As an aside you can see a photo of a latter-day climber falling off the same route at the beginning of my article, Some reasons why IT projects fail. I’m glad to say in this photo, unlike the video above, the climber is wearing a helmet!

What the clip illustrates is the dangers inherent in the subject of this article; traditional lead climbing. OK the jargon probably needs some explanation. First of all climbing is a very broad church, in this piece I’ll be ignoring whole areas such as mountaineering, soloing and the various types of winter and ice climbing. I am going to focus on roped climbing on rock, something that generally requires dry weather (unless you are a masochist or the British weather changes on you).

In this activity, one person climbs (unsurprisingly the climber) and another holds the rope attached to them (the belayer). The belayer uses a mechanism called a belay device to do this, but we will elide these details. With my background in Business Intelligence, I’ll now introduce some dimensions with which you can “slice and dice” this activity:

  1. multi-pitch / single pitch

    Single-pitch climbs are shorter than a length of rope (typically 50-70m) and often happen on rock outcrops such as in the Peak District mentioned above. The climber completes the climb and then the belayer may follow them up if they want, or alternatively the climber might walk round to find an easy decent and the pair will then go and find another climb.

    Multi-pitch climbs consist of at least two pitches; and sometimes many more. They tend to be in a mountain environment. One person may climb a pitch and then alternate with their partner, or the same person may climb each section first. It depends on the team.

  2. top roping / leading

    Top roping is not a very precise term (bottom roping might be more accurate) but is generally taken to mean that the rope runs from the belayer, to the top of the climb and then down to the climber.A fall when top roping

    As the climber ascends, the belayer (hopefully!) takes in the slack, but (again hopefully!) without hauling the climber up the route. This means that if the climber falls (and the belayer is both competent and attentive) they should be caught by the rope almost immediately. Obviously this arrangement only works on single-pitch climbs.

    In lead climbing, or leading, the rope runs from the belayer up to the climber. As the climber ascends, they attach the rope to various points in the rock on the climb (for how they do this see the next bullet point).A leader fall - assuming that the gear holds

    Assuming that the climber is able to make a good attachment to the rock (again see next point) the issue here is how far they fall. If they climb 2m above their last attachment point, then a slip at this point will see them swinging 2m below this point – a total fall of 4m, much longer than when top roping. Also if the last attachment point is say 10m above the ground and the climber falls off say 8m above this, then slack in the system and rope stretch will probably see them hit the ground; something that should never happen in top roping.

    [As an aside true top roping is what happens when the belayer climbs up after the climber. Here they are now belayed by the original climber from above. However no one uses the term top roping for this, instead they talk about bringing up the second, or seconding. Top roping is reserved for the practice of bottom roping described above, no one said that climbing was a logical sport!]

  3. sport / traditional In the last point I referred to a lead climber mysteriously attaching themselves to the rock as they ascend. The way that they do this determines whether they are engaged in sport or traditional climbing (though there is some blurriness around the edges).

    In sport climbing, holes are pre-drilled into the rock at strategic intervals (normally 3-5m apart, but sometimes more). Into these are glued either a metal staple or a single bolt with a metal hanger on it that has a hole in it.Staple or bolt with hanger - used in Sport Climbing

    The process of equiping a sport route in this way can take some time, particularly if it is overhanging and of course it needs to be done well if the bolts are to hold a climber’s fall. A single-pitch sport climb may have 10 or more of these bolts, plus generally a lower-off point at the top.

    DMM Phantom Quick-draw (or extender)

    The climber will take with them at least the same number of quick draws as there are bolts. These are two spring-loaded carabiners joined by a section of strong tape. As the climber ascends, they clip one end of a quick-draw to the staple or hanger and the other end over the rope attaching them to their belayer.

    So long as the person who drilled and inserted the bolts did a good job and so long as the climber is competent in clipping themselves into these; then sport climbing should be relatively safe. At this point I should stress that I know of good climbers who have died sport climbing, often by making a simple mistake, often after having completed a climb and looking to lower off. Sport climbing is a relatively safer form of climbing, but it is definitively not 100% safe; no form of climbing is.

    Because of its [relative] safety, sport climbing has something of the ethos of bouldering, with a focus on climbing at your limit as the systems involved should prevent serious injury in normal circumstances.

    In traditional climbing (uniformly called trad) the difference is that there are no pre-placed bolts, instead the climber has to take advantage of the nature of the rock to arrange their own attachment points. This means that you have to take the contents of a small hardware store with you on your climb. The assorted pieces of gear that you might use to protect yourself include: Nuts/wires (which you try to wedge into small cracks):

    A selection of DMM wall-nuts

    Hexes (which you try to wedge into large cracks):

    Wild Country Hexacentrics

    Cams/Friends (spring-loaded mechanical devices that you place in parallel cracks – the latter name being a make of cams):

    Black Diamond Cam-a-lots

    Slings (which you use to lasso spikes, or thread through any convenient holes in the rock):

    Dynema slings

    Once you have secured any of the above into or around the rock, you clip in with a quick-draw as in Sport climbing and heave a sigh of relief.

In the video that started this section, Jean-minh Trin-thieu falls (a long way) on to a cam, which thankfully holds. The issue on this particular climb is that there are no more opportunities to place gear after the final cam at round about half-way up. The nature of the rock means that a lot of Gritsone climbing is like this; one of the reasons that it is not a favourite of mine.

In any case, having established the above dimensions, I am going to drill down via two of them to concentrate on just trad leading. My comments apply equally to multi- and single-pitch, but the former offers greater scope for getting yourself into trouble.

The many perils of trad leading

This is why they call lead climbing "the sharp end"
Dave Birkett on “Nowt Burra Fleein’ thing” E8 6c, Cam Crag, Wasdale, The English Lake District – © Alastair Lee –

One of the major issues with trad climbing, particularly multi-pitch trad climbing in a mountain environment is that you are never quite sure what you need to take. The more gear you clip to your harness, the more likely you are to be able to deal with any eventuality, but the heavier you are going to be and the harder it will be to climb. Some one once compared trad leading to climbing wearing a metal skirt.

The issue here is that not only do you have to find somewhere to place this protective gear, you have to place it well so that it is not dislodged as you climb past, or pulls out if you fall. What adds to this problem is that you may have to try to place say a wire in a situation where you are holding on to a small hold with one hand, with only one foot on a hold and the other dangling. You may also be on an overhang and thus with all gravity’s force coming to bear on your tendons. At such moments thoughts like “how far below was my last piece of gear?”, “how confident am I that I placed it well?” and “what happens if I can’t fiddle this piece of metal into this crack before my fingers un-peal?” tend to come to mind with alarming ease.

It is not unheard of for a trad leader to climb up many metres, placing an assortment of gear en route, only to fall off and have all of it rip out, a phenomenon call “unzipping”, thankfully not something I have experienced directly; though I have seen it happen to other people.

These additional uncertainties tend to lead to a more cautious approach to trad leading, with many people climbing within their abilities on trad climbs. Some people push themselves on trad and some get away with it for a while. However there is a saying about there being old climbers and bold climbers, but no old bold climbers.

The links with business projects

El Capitan, Yosemite, CA.

I have written quite a few times before about the benefits of an incremental approach, so long as this bears the eventual strategic direction in mind (see for example: Tactical Meandering and Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI). In rock climbing, even within a single pitch, it is often recommended to break this into sections, particularly if there are obvious places (e.g. ledges) where you can take a bit of a rest and consider the next section. This also helps with not being too daunted; often the biggest deal is to start climbing and once you are committed then things become easier (though of course this advice can also get you in over your head on occasion).

Splitting a climb into sections is a good idea, but – in the same way as with business projects – you need to keep your eye on your eventual destination. If you don’t you may be so focussed on the current moves that you go off route and then have to face potentially difficult climbing to get back where you need to be. The equivalent in business would be projects that do not advance the overall programme.

However the analogy doesn’t stop there. If we break a single-pitch trad lead climb into smaller sections, those between each piece of gear that you place, then it is obvious that you need to pay particular attention to the piece of equipment that you are about to employ. If you do this well, then you have minimised the distance that you will fall and this will bolster your confidence for the next piece of climbing. If you rush placing your gear, or assume that it is sort of OK, then at the best you will give yourself unnecessary concerns about your climbing for the next few metres. At worst a fall could lead to this gear ripping and a longer fall, or even hitting the ground.

In business projects, if you take an incremental approach, then in the same way you must remember that you will be judged on the success or failure of the most recent project. Of course if you have a track record of earlier success then this can act as a safety net; the same as when your highest piece of gear fails, but the next one catches you. However, it is not the most comfortable of things to take a really long leader fall and similarly it is best to build on the success of one project with further successes instead of resting on your laurels.

Of course the consequences of rushing your interim steps in rock climbing can be a lot more terminal than in business. Nevertheless failure in either activity is not welcome and it is best to take every precaution to avoid it.

5 thoughts on “Incremental Progress and Rock Climbing

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s