Getting to the Top
Since 1955, around 2000 companies have found themselves in the Fortune 500 list, but only 65 of these have managed to stay on. Getting to the top of the Fortune list and staying there is like mountaineering. Take Mt. Everest for instance - around 4000 people have tried to surmount it, with just 660 succeeding. And 219 (at the end of 2010) lost their lives trying. It is common belief that these deaths occur due to avalanches and ice fall. However, studies indicate that the factor causing most deaths is fatigue - taking grip at about 8000m - often called the death zone. It takes a well-trained mountaineer 12 hours to cover the last 1.07 mi. A sea level dweller would lose consciousness in about 2-3 mins without acclimatization at that height.
But, what separates the successful from the rest, in most cases, is not linked to the external environment but to one's own ability to deal with extreme situations. Interestingly, research also indicates that for 80% of firms growth stalls because of internal organizational issues while only 20% are impacted adversely by dramatic external changes. Mountaineers understand that packing one's gear before the climb is a strategic act. If you don't carry enough, you risk starving along the way. Carry too much, and it'll slow you down and tire you too. Organizations need to make similar choices - which products, capabilities and relationships to carry and which ones to discard - especially when the business environment is unpredictable and severe.
Mountaineers train themselves to survive in low oxygen zones, with less food and deal with days of loneliness which can affect decision-making sometimes even leading to fatal mistakes. During training, smart mountaineers assess their own capacity to carry weight through long distances, the speed at which they can move with the load, and the nourishment they need to sustain strength. This is key to planning a successful trip to the summit. It not only helps mountaineers make the journey, but helps them choose the right partners as well. Look at great partnerships like that of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who scaled the Everest. This was not the first attempt for either of them - they had several failed attempts before joining John Hunt's expedition comprising 400 hikers. Like successful mountaineers, smart organizations train themselves to survive with less resources by continuously simplifying their operations to deliver more with less. They learn from their failures. They are keenly aware of their own capabilities and the complexity they can deal with. This helps them focus efforts. Enables them to choose partners wisely and collaborate effectively. When the external environment gets tough, these organizations outlast their competitors who collapse under the load of their own weight.
A successful journey to the top requires serious preparation through continuous simplification, rigorous learning, collaboration and the ability to adapt to change. The key to all this is awareness of one's own capabilities and strengths. The only way to find out if one can climb a mountain is to climb one. Smarter organizations do - tirelessly.