Our companies and careers grow and take place as strings of events. As we progress, some of the things that we think are going to be difficult, turn out to be quite easy. And inevitably some projects that look easy turn out to be exceedingly difficult. Much of the discrepancy between our assessment of a task and its actual difficulty comes from the geometry hidden within the tasks themselves. As a decision maker in business, it pays dividends to be able to recognize such patterns – to effectively predict outcomes before they happen. Just as mountain men in the wilderness depend on their ability to read the signs of their environment to survive, so too must the modern manager be intimately familiar with the signs of her environment. From my experience in hiking the Sierras in California, the correlation of climbing to business is very striking – in particular what I like to call the ‘Everest Structure’. It is critical for every manager and entrepreneur to explore what that means, and why it is so important.I recently had a meeting with a smart young engineer who is working for a tech company, and has been promised an equity share of the business. As often happens with this kind of arrangement, time has passed and the paperwork for the equity has not yet materialized. Promises were made, conversations were had, but no concrete action has been taken. The engineer is very distraught after over a year of waiting and repeatedly being put off by the company owner on the issue of getting the equity contract signed. You can imagine the scene, with hemming and hawing from the business owner to the effect that ‘it will take $15k to get the lawyers to create the equity paperwork, we have more important things to do right now’ and so on. The engineer will never get his promised equity.
Add up legal cost, loss of control, inconvenience, time required, and emotional inertia and there is no amount of propulsion that will push the business owner to take the action promised — even if he had intended to do so at the beginning. The point to understand is that action comes when the pain of inaction is greater than the cost of action. In this case, the energy required to take the steps for an equity grant is far greater than the emotional energy available to do it. This likely looks like a simple matter to the engineer-but he does not recognize the terrain he is standing on. Just as a topographic map may show a short distance between two points, if there is a huge vertical ascent required, there are significant implications for a proposed traversal: This is worth noticing!
This is an example of an Everest Moment — a single step that is too high to climb, too much effort to happen given the resources and motivation available. Just as a year has passed since the agreement, there has not yet (nor ever will be) a single moment in which that owner will have enough reason to ‘climb the mountain’ and do it. The pain is too much, and besides, he has already gotten what he wants from the engineer (software work, a product build, refined, and delivered).
The signs that a climb is coming:
Mt. Everest varies from the land that leads up to it because the rate of vertical ascent keeps increasing. Each successive step gets harder, more vertical, and with more constrained resources (less energy, oxygen, lower temperature). Everest structures exist in psychology, and also within the other fields that make up our business; one such area is product engineering.
An Everest Moment in engineering can be seen as a major project, constructed in many parts comes together for an integrated deployment to customers. The mathematics of interactions for each individual part is relatively simple. Inputs, outputs, design factors are taken one at a time. As components come together, requirements compound and complexity increases. As more elements combine into a deliverable project, the mathematical permutation of the factors greatly increases the complexity – an Everest Moment emerges as everything comes together. The final steps of a project stand out as the most complex of the project– more complex than those that came before by orders of magnitude.
Just as in climbing a mountain, Everest structures share a number of properties.
False Summits – As you climb a mountain, it is a built-in truth that it can be hard to see where you are going. The perspective looking up is a challenged one. The angle of view will often look like ‘just a bit more and we are there!’, while reality is that you are not even half way done. This is such a pervasive reality in so many projects! “Just a bit more and we are finished” – How many times have we said that or thought that when in retrospect it was not even close to true? Everest structures are such that as complexity increases, it does so in a way that we are not likely to completely comprehend.
Constrained Resources – Everest structures are also challenge us because they demand increased application of resources (attention, time, energy, capital, emotion) without providing more of the same. An engineering team will not be having more hands to complete the final stages of a project. An individual will not have more concentration, money, or stamina for the last effort. Everest structures demand more of everything to complete, while the resources to apply a solution are already depleted from the journey to the mountain. On Everest herself, it takes a lot of effort, time, supplies, and energy just to get to the mountain and up the first stages. This effort significantly depletes climbers in the run-up to the real climb of the steep sides of the mountain itself.
Concentrated Effort – Everest Structures also and most notably require concentrated effort to conquer. This is the underlying reality of them, and the reason that so many people fail to overcome them. Within a regime of constrained resources, and false summits, Everest requires a continued and single-pointed determination to overcome. This concentrated effort (or the impossibility of it) is the deciding factor in the outcome of the climb.
Everest Structures are present at the deciding moments in our businesses, our personal lives, and our careers. They are inherently significant as they so frequently represent the coming-together of our plans, goals, and aspirations. Our ability to anticipate them and meet the complexity and effort with preparation and resolve will decide the important outcomes — which leads us to the important question: