On climbing Mount Innovation

Gerhard Pawelka

By Gerhard Pawelka


In 1958, after 47 days of climbing spread over a period of 18 months, Warren Harding managed to become the first human to climb the 2,900-foot, mostly vertical granite face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley. He had tools to help pull himself and his equipment up El Cap, and he had tools to protect himself from a fall. In 1994, Lynn Hill became the first person to free climb El Cap in under 24 hours. She had no tools to help her climb, but she did have tools to arrest a fall. In 2017, Alex Honnold free soloed El Cap in under 4 hours. He had no tools at all.

It’s tempting to conclude from these stories that leaving the tools behind leads to faster climbs. However, there’s more than that going on here. Hill and Honnold practiced their routes with tools before their historic climbs. Honnold spent years visualising his climb; months hanging on ropes studying and adjusting his route, practicing, and memorising the 3,000+ moves he’d need to make when free soloing—meticulously documenting every nuance of each move up the wall in his personal journal. Documentary movie clips even capture Honnold cleaning pencil-thin edges of granite with a toothbrush to help him assess exactly how to choreograph his intended moves on that one spot.

Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan was a remarkable human achievement by any standard. But, he does not attribute this achievement to luck. He planned his route, he prepared his body, he practiced the moves. In his own words, “…it felt like mastery.” It should be noted that Honnold would not have had that free solo experience if he did not take the time or have the tools to prepare for it.

I am in the comparatively far safer business of engineering. Working with exceptionally talented colleagues and clients, I convert inventive ideas into innovative products. While what we do is a lot closer to the safety and ease of flipping a pancake than it is to free solo climbing, engineering does have its complications and its thrills. We work in a wide range of industries with an even wider range of technologies. Every path we take is different, but the process is always the same: find the route, study the route, practice the moves, gulp, then climb swiftly and deftly to the top. It should feel like mastery.

I know what it feels like to work on projects that strove to reach that innovation summit but did not make it. It wasn’t because the team was not fit or because there was a precipitous fall. Mostly, it was because we got lost somewhere on the wall. Of the projects that did summit, all of them had diligently conceived and well-executed plans. Those lessons taught me that having the right tools to plan innovation is more important than having tools to help me or save me when I am already underway.

So, what do we do to prepare ourselves before a climb? The specifics are very circumstantial, but we generally refer to a set of tenets that are my company’s first principles for how we plan and do our work. Here are three of my favourites around planning:

Find a way.

This is less about muscling through adversity and more about lifting the fog, identifying the obstacles, and clearing a path to the destination. We are perpetually solving business problems with engineering, which involve the balancing of three factors: (1) economic viability, (2) technical feasibility, and (3) customer utility. When we see a sufficiently large overlap between these factors, the planning is easy. When we do not see an overlap, we have to figure out which side of these factors we need to push on to get that overlap. That planning is harder. The fog is heavier, the obstacles are bigger, the terrain does not as easily give up a path to the destination. Nonetheless, if there is a way, the most intrepid of us will find it.

Listen, think, then build.

It seems like an obvious order of operations, but it is surprising how easily this can be forgotten. My team is almost always put in a position that is, to some degree, unfamiliar. So, we expect to learn. With that expectation, we have to listen — listen in the broadest sense of the word. What we allow ourselves to hear shapes the reality of the steps that follow. Anything misheard or unheard will contribute to the shape of our thinking as much as what was heard. As for thinking, take the time to constantly modulate between a state of unbridled creativity and a state of rigorous critical analysis. Take the time. Don’t rush to build.

Think like a beginner.

Experience is a powerful thing. It gives you the ability to predict the future. With it, you can avoid the pitfalls and other treacherous obstacles. The problem with experience is the confirmation bias that comes with it. We tend to index what we are observing today with the closest thing we experienced in the past. That bias can betray us. Beginners are not so encumbered. As Zen Buddhist monk, Shunryu Suzuki, succinctly states: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Suspend disbelief long enough to fully explore what you are facing.

The connective tissue between invention and innovation is insight, having a deep understanding for a thing.”

The more certain I am of my insights into the terrain shaped by the economics, the technology, and the user, the more certain I am of my pathfinding. And the more certain I am of my path, the more certain I am about making little adjustments along the way. We follow the path we laid out before us, we test and confirm every move, and before long we are standing on the summit. What a view!

This essay originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Innovation Leader’s Pointers.

About the authors

Gerhard Pawelka
Gerhard Pawelka Design and engineering expert

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