You may have seen the Oscar winning documentary Free Solo about professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the famed El Capitan’s 3000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park, without ropes or any safety equipment. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t die.
I’ve watched several interviews with Alex Honnold. There are probably many project management and leadership lessons to be learned from his experiences, but one story in particular caught my attention.
Years before climbing El Capitan, Alex climbed a 2000-foot face at Half Dome, also in Yosemite, also without ropes. Although a world-class and record-breaking achievement, he described the experience as somewhat disappointing. Not dying, achieving something the rest of us wouldn’t dream of attempting, was “somewhat disappointing”? How can this be?
Well, it turns out he “got a little lost” on his way up the wall, and ended up off his preferred route. At another point he encountered a maneuver he wasn’t sure he could perform. He did the move, but when he got to top he realized that merely “not dying” was not sufficient for him. He came to understand that if he was to climb El Capitan in a way he deemed successful, rewarding, and yes – enjoyable, the preparation and experience would have to be very different from the Half Dome climb.
Why is this relevant for project management? Because we get involved in projects all the time where the objectives and deliverables seem obvious and clear. Climb the route without dying. Build a bridge that will carry 20,000 vehicles per day. Install a system that will allow users to enter transactions 25% faster. But is this really the case? Do you really understand the big picture strategic intent? Turns out the real objective for Half Dome was to achieve the climb in a controlled, calm, and confident manner. Maybe that bridge is intended to be an architectural statement that will put the municipality on the map for the years to come. The system is maybe intended to reduce the rate of repetitive stress injuries.
What appears to be obvious and clear may not be so. Do you know if the project you deliver is really going to produce the benefits the various stakeholders are expecting? What are the true project objectives?