I almost forget the first rule of the mountains: watch your step.
After a few falls and a knee-high dip into a brown puddle that is better left unidentified, I realize that I should stop losing myself to the wonders around me.
“No way, this is nothing like the Dolomites! That range is made of dolostone, a sedimentary rock made of vulcanic carbon. This one here is completely different…”
I turn, surprised by this unexpected lesson, and smile when I realize that I had said something blasphemous in front of the wrong person – the most technically prepared of us: Matteo.
I ask for an explanation, seeing as what he said could have been a foreign language to me. With the patience and competence of a university lecturer, he shared a series of information that only a real fan of the mountains can know – one that has always dedicated themselves to reaching the peak, and also to studying it.
Matteo is a real mountaineer, from every point of view.
He has always been passionate about the mountains, he recounts. For as long as he can remember, he has been observing the peaks and valleys with wonder, and ever since he was of age, he has been exploring them far and wide.
He’s the only one of us that really knows what we’re taking on, both from a physical and technical point of view. He knows it because he has tried it on his own skin.
This, for Matteo, is not the first appointment with the Mont Blanc.
They have met and challenged each other in the accomplishment of one of his most ambitious childhood dreams.
“I remember it like it was yesterday – I have that same feeling when I think about it. I was 22 years old. I remember leaving at 1:00 in the morning, the snow shining in the moonlight. I remember the crazy feeling of reaching the top, at 8:00 in the morning, and understanding what it really means to the on top of Europe. And then I remember the infinite, tiring descent to the valley, walking until 5:00 in the afternoon. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life, but also one of the most exhausting. A memory that contributes to me fearing that next year I won’t try it again…”
I jump at these words. I didn’t expect this.
If there was one person that I was sure would be on that peak, with his smiling eyes the color of ice, it would be Matteo.
Due exactly to his experience, I took for granted that he would be a fervent supporter of the project.
“Of course I am! It’s a visionary project, its parallels to change management and to our work is clear, it’s a big challenge.
But everything has its time and I’m certain that, for my knees, that time has passed.
I tore my ligaments many years ago, but I ignored it and continued doing what I loved – going in the mountains to hike, relying on my other leg. But, after many years of work, even my strong leg started to give.
They told me I should be swimming instead, and here I am. But I can only push so far. If I overdo it, I’m sure there will be repercussions.”
I look towards his knee, framed in a bright blue knee brace, the one he wears out to every hike. I can tell he has trouble with it, especially during the descent, but I’ve never seen him skip out on any peak despite it.
And so, we see each other at the top, all together this time, Matteo included.
But his light eyes are nowhere to be seen in the group photos. By the time we get together to take them, he’s already headed back for the valley. The descent is his Achille’s heel, and he wants to take his time.
I see him again a few hundred meters into the descent, in a seemingly unpleasant situation with Luigildo. They’re sitting down, one helping the other stretch. We have our laughs and continue down. This time I stay behind with them.
“It’s terrible,” explains Matteo, as we begin walking again, “These cramps are killing me. I couldn’t keep walking, I was lucky that Luigildo stopped to help me, otherwise I don’t know how I could have made it back down.”
We continue, slow but steady, as we talk about the mountains, life, and the ambitious project that is M4810.
We talk about the Mont Blanc, about the challenge that awaits, of who feels up to it and who doesn’t, and of what we’re still missing in order to be completely ready.
“One time we brought a group of managers from one of our client companies to do quite a unique team building activity: rafting on a river,” Matteo recounts.
“There’s one thing that surprised me on that occasion. Before starting, the guides made everyone jump into the water, one by one, asking them to try reaching the bank.
It wasn’t a particularly turbulent area of water, so they jumped in.
In just a few seconds, the current had taken them away, and reaching the riverbank again, for some, was more difficult than the rafting itself. Discovering this was fundamental before starting to raft and having the possibility of encountering real danger. They needed to be prepared to manage it.
It’s as important in rafting as it is in the mountains, and even in our work lives and in change management: it’s called risk management.
The margin for error in the mountains is very, very different, especially if compared to what we can afford in an experimental or innovative project. And this is a very interesting element when comparing M4810 to any other change project.
The topic of risk in organizations has a double meaning. In “ordinary” activities, companies reduce risk by standardizing execution as much as possible in order to save energy on problem-solving.
However, when we talk about “experimenting”, we talk about trying to do something new, something out of the ordinary: in this sense, you HAVE to allow yourself greater margins for error – it’s the only way you can innovate.
These are two different ways of understanding error. Even failure is understood in this context as a learning opportunity.
This brings me to the paradox of M4810: the mountains require an approach more similar to the first example. We must reduce error to a minimum because there are always unforeseen variables, risks that objectively cannot be avoided.
On the other hand, M4810 is extraordinary, it’s pure innovation, field research, experimentation. A high altitude Change Management lab. So, in order for it works, we have to allow ourselves margins for error anyway.
Do you see the difficulty? The balance between these two approaches is what continuously challenges us in this project.”
What he’s saying continues to surprise me. It’s clearly a train of thought based on much reflection, not something that can be improvised while hiking down with a painful knee.
And I understand what his challenge is.
He has already tried these things on his own skin, he knows the mountains from all points of view – for Matteo, it’s not only a question of reaching the top, but more so of turning this project into a real case study.
“I’m truly grateful of having taken part in this challenge.
When your company presents you the opportunity to put your passion to work, you can’t help but take part in the cause.
I’ve taken every step, every outing, supporting and guiding the choices made using the personal experience that I’ve acquired in time.
Now, my challenge is double and parallel: when we get back down, the point is to put in action what we learned up there. It’s a process that can only be taken on one step at a time, a series of studies that we’re setting up: if in change there are often leaps of innovation and research on what is yet to come, in the mountains the steps are much smaller.
We have to take every single change theory argument and evaluate its impact on our approach to the mountains. The arguments are various and complex.
There’s the theme of an unknown context that must be faced but that is unpredictable, in our work as in the mountains.
The theme of training to change, that must be done consistently, and not just in the sterile gym environment.
The concept of data analysis and how these data must be used in order to correct possible errors.
There is the change in strategy as a synonym for success, for the capacity to analyse the response that you receive instead of moving forward at all costs.
The theme of the change process, the means that is as important as the destination, as the end of the change itself.
There is the team aspect, of harmony, the need to measure ourselves against each other in order to reach results and to decide on a consequent level.
These are just some of the many, many themes. All elements that should be isolated and measured for this expedition using an almost scientific approach in order to guarantee its merit as a real change management innovation laboratory. There’s less than a year to go, and we are really starting to make these analyses.”
“And the second challenge?” I ask.
“The next 4000 metres will tell me a lot about my personal change of following through with this project in what concerns the hiking and not just the analysis. But as I see it, in this environment, as long as each of us continues to try overcoming our own limits, our own fears, of convincing ourselves that we can do something that we otherwise thought was impossible, this strange school of change is successful.
Beyond that, to reach the peak of the Mont Blanc, there is a question of vocation, ambition, and intrinsic desire. Each one of us will have to decide for ourselves.”
Hearing him talk as we conclude the descent, I begin truly believing that there is a challenge for every one of us in M4810.
For most participants, it will be trying to reach a peak that we previously considered impossible.
For those who know that the peak is possible, because they’ve already conquered it, maybe the choice is to stop. Or maybe it’s the occasion to discover that even when we think that we’ve reached our limit, we can make it a metre beyond it.
After this chat, though, I’ve understood something. For all of us, the real challenge is to remember that the people in Methodos will continue being consultants and not mountaineers, and that this change management laboratory doesn’t come to an end when the hiking does. It’s there that the actual work begins.