Leading a Team to the Top of Mount Everest

What does it take to successfully lead a team to the top of the highest peak in the world? First-year MBA students find out as they participate together in "Everest: A Leadership and Team Simulation." Professor Amy Edmondson talks about the choice to use Mount Everest as the backdrop for this business management exercise, designing the simulation, and what students learn about teamwork along their way up the mountain.

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This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Kenny: In 1922, a British team led by George Mallory set out to be the first ever to scale the summit of Mount Everest. They failed. In 1924 during a second attempt, they disappeared altogether. Since then, thousands of people have made the attempt; many have succeeded while others have succumbed to the brutal conditions at 29,000 feet above sea level. What does it take to successfully lead a team to the top of the highest peak in the world? Today we'll speak with Professor Amy Edmondson about Everest: A Leadership and Team Simulation. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Edmondson teaches MBA and doctoral students as well as executives at Harvard Business School. Her areas of expertise include leadership, teams, innovation, and organizational learning. I think those are all pretty well appropriate for the conversation we're going to have today. Amy, welcome.

Amy : Thank you, delightful to be here.

Kenny: Set up the scenario for us about the simulation.

Edmondson: We designed the simulation to create conditions whereby (participants) have to share information and share it extremely, thoughtfully, and systematically, while requiring them to listen intently to each other in order to solve a series of challenges along the way in a pseudo climb of Everest.

We used Everest as the backdrop because it's engaging, it's exciting, it's exhilarating. The simulation is not really about Everest, it just uses that context. What it's about is the very real challenges of people in diverse teams, meaning teams with diverse expertise trying to make decisions, trying to solve problems, trying to forge new territory. That's a challenging interpersonal and technical activity. We created the simulation to give students an experience of just how challenging that can be.

Kenny: Why did you choose to do a simulation rather than just write a case about it?

Edmondson: One of the reasons that a simulation is appropriate is that it puts people in a situation where, at first glance, they think it should be relatively easy. We do the simulation each year with all of the MBA students, and most of them will take one look at it and they'll see what information they have, and they'll see what the task ahead is, and they won't be daunted by it. They think it looks pretty straightforward, and it is—but only if you listen deeply to what each other have to say.

The first and most powerful reason to use a simulation is that a great number of the teams will not do as well as they thought ... and it's an emotional experience. Whereas (in some other case studies) you sometimes can sit back and think, "Oh yeah, I would have done fine in that situation if I were really in it."

This isn't really being in the situation, but it's one step closer to being in an actual situation, having to take action, having to sort through ambiguous data, make decisions, and see how well you do. Another big difference here with cases is that there are right answers in this simulation and you can come to them if, again, if you manage the process well. It gives (students) an opportunity to realize they may not be as good team members as they thought they were.

Kenny: Explain what the team looks like. One of the things I enjoyed about this, and I think probably the participants did too, there's a bit of gamification to this. You sort of feel like you're playing a game or play acting in some ways. Who were the members of the team?

Edmondson: You are playing a game and you are play acting in a very real way. There are five members of each team, and the participants are usually randomly assigned. All of those folks have their own distinct backgrounds or back stories, if you will, and they also have access because of their expertise and because of their life stories, to different data, different information. Only by sharing that different information can the teams do well, make good decisions.

Kenny: How much do the students know? As they are sitting down have they been given a briefing document or do they just sit down and told, "This is your role"?

Edmondson: They sit down and are told, "This is your role." They each study their role and see what (their character) knows about the situation, see what they know about their role. Many teams take a round or two of the simulation to suddenly have that recognition that they have access to different information. Some figure it out sooner than that, but it's often a huge “aha” when they realize they don't all have identical screens. They know they have five different roles but they don't assume that each may have different information about the contextual conditions.

Kenny: I should also say that this is a multimedia case, meaning that there are videos components. One of the videos that the students watch before they begin the simulation is (an interview with) somebody who actually scaled Mount Everest and what he describes is a pretty daunting experience.

Edmondson: Jim Clarke, who's one of our wonderful alumni, did an actual Everest climb and he describes in just a terrific interview some of the features of that climb, the preparation you need, the training, the tools, the equipment. One of my favorite parts of the interview with Jim Clarke is when he says once you get above the Hillary Step, basically it takes maybe five breaths to take one step. I think in a way the video makes students over cautious, which doesn't always help them.

Kenny: It's a great dietary aid too because I think he said he burned 16,000 calories a day…

Edmondson: And you're not hungry.

Kenny: And you're not hungry. I think it probably does put some fear in the participants but that's important, right? Because as they go through this process they need to be factoring in all of these different physical elements of the climb.

Edmondson: They do need to be careful, they need to be systematic, they need to be disciplined. They don't need to be superstitiously risk averse. In other words, what is not helpful is saying, "Oh, the weather doesn't look good, we'll just stay here" or, "Oh, you look like your health is faltering a little, we'll just stay here." You can't climb the mountain if you don't climb the mountain.

Kenny: What is the goal then, what's the ultimate goal for each team?

Edmondson: The goal is to climb the mountain, and the goal is to get everybody up the mountain. That's the way you get the most points.

Kenny: What are some of the challenges that the teams are going to encounter as they're scaling the mountain?

Edmondson: They know already that they have the challenge of safely climbing the mountain. What they don't know is that at various points on the climb they'll be hit by an unexpected challenge. I won't tell you here for purposes of suspense for the simulation exactly what those are, but they're each challenges that the team can absolutely solve if they use the information they have.

Kenny: You've done this with MBA students, you've also done it with students in our executive education program. They're different just by virtue of the fact that some have more experience and more team dynamics than others. How they come at this? Do they come at it differently?

Edmondson: On average the MBA students will do a little bit better because this really is a simulation in which you have to take the number seriously, you have to take the process seriously. The executives have a slightly higher tendency to shoot from the hip.

Kenny: I bet they enjoy this, I bet this is kind of a fun.

Edmondson: They love it, they love it. Another thing we do with the MBAs, and I occasionally do this with the executives, is we give them little cameras and we ask them to videotape their team process while they're having these discussions. Then we send them back to watch certain segments of their videotapes.

It's at that moment where some very profound insights come for them because they literally had no idea they weren't listening to each other. They become quite humbled by the fact that their conversations were not as good, most of them, as they might have thought. In fact for some they just don't even resemble what their own impression of it was.

Kenny: Pretty amazing and probably very similar to the kinds of conversations that we all have every day with our own teams at work.

Edmondson: Absolutely. In fact the real goal of the simulation was that the premise that in order to make good team decisions, and when you have diverse skills, diverse expertise gathered around the table, you've got to thoughtfully, systematically share those insights, share those areas of expertise. Yet, it is so much harder than most people think it is.

The second thing is that we come around the table with some shared goals, of course, but we also have some conflicting goals, and we don't usually deal with those as thoughtfully as we should.

Kenny: Have you been to Mount Everest?

Edmondson: I have not. I have been to Nepal, I've been to Kathmandu. But I have not been to Everest.

Kenny: Closer than most.

Edmondson: Yes, closer than most.

Kenny: Amy, thanks so much for joining me today.

Edmondson: My pleasure. Thank you Brian.

Kenny: You can find Everest: A Leadership and Team Simulation along with thousands of cases in the HBS case collection at hbr.org. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Kenny: In 1922, a British team led by George Mallory set out to be the first ever to scale the summit of Mount Everest. They failed. In 1924 during a second attempt, they disappeared altogether. Since then, thousands of people have made the attempt; many have succeeded while others have succumbed to the brutal conditions at 29,000 feet above sea level. What does it take to successfully lead a team to the top of the highest peak in the world? Today we'll speak with Professor Amy Edmondson about Everest: A Leadership and Team Simulation. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you're listening to Cold Call.

Professor Edmondson teaches MBA and doctoral students as well as executives at Harvard Business School. Her areas of expertise include leadership, teams, innovation, and organizational learning. I think those are all pretty well appropriate for the conversation we're going to have today. Amy, welcome.

Amy : Thank you, delightful to be here.

Kenny: Set up the scenario for us about the simulation.

Edmondson: We designed the simulation to create conditions whereby (participants) have to share information and share it extremely, thoughtfully, and systematically, while requiring them to listen intently to each other in order to solve a series of challenges along the way in a pseudo climb of Everest.

We used Everest as the backdrop because it's engaging, it's exciting, it's exhilarating. The simulation is not really about Everest, it just uses that context. What it's about is the very real challenges of people in diverse teams, meaning teams with diverse expertise trying to make decisions, trying to solve problems, trying to forge new territory. That's a challenging interpersonal and technical activity. We created the simulation to give students an experience of just how challenging that can be.

Kenny: Why did you choose to do a simulation rather than just write a case about it?

Edmondson: One of the reasons that a simulation is appropriate is that it puts people in a situation where, at first glance, they think it should be relatively easy. We do the simulation each year with all of the MBA students, and most of them will take one look at it and they'll see what information they have, and they'll see what the task ahead is, and they won't be daunted by it. They think it looks pretty straightforward, and it is—but only if you listen deeply to what each other have to say.

The first and most powerful reason to use a simulation is that a great number of the teams will not do as well as they thought ... and it's an emotional experience. Whereas (in some other case studies) you sometimes can sit back and think, "Oh yeah, I would have done fine in that situation if I were really in it."

This isn't really being in the situation, but it's one step closer to being in an actual situation, having to take action, having to sort through ambiguous data, make decisions, and see how well you do. Another big difference here with cases is that there are right answers in this simulation and you can come to them if, again, if you manage the process well. It gives (students) an opportunity to realize they may not be as good team members as they thought they were.

Kenny: Explain what the team looks like. One of the things I enjoyed about this, and I think probably the participants did too, there's a bit of gamification to this. You sort of feel like you're playing a game or play acting in some ways. Who were the members of the team?

Edmondson: You are playing a game and you are play acting in a very real way. There are five members of each team, and the participants are usually randomly assigned. All of those folks have their own distinct backgrounds or back stories, if you will, and they also have access because of their expertise and because of their life stories, to different data, different information. Only by sharing that different information can the teams do well, make good decisions.

Kenny: How much do the students know? As they are sitting down have they been given a briefing document or do they just sit down and told, "This is your role"?

Edmondson: They sit down and are told, "This is your role." They each study their role and see what (their character) knows about the situation, see what they know about their role. Many teams take a round or two of the simulation to suddenly have that recognition that they have access to different information. Some figure it out sooner than that, but it's often a huge “aha” when they realize they don't all have identical screens. They know they have five different roles but they don't assume that each may have different information about the contextual conditions.

Kenny: I should also say that this is a multimedia case, meaning that there are videos components. One of the videos that the students watch before they begin the simulation is (an interview with) somebody who actually scaled Mount Everest and what he describes is a pretty daunting experience.

Edmondson: Jim Clarke, who's one of our wonderful alumni, did an actual Everest climb and he describes in just a terrific interview some of the features of that climb, the preparation you need, the training, the tools, the equipment. One of my favorite parts of the interview with Jim Clarke is when he says once you get above the Hillary Step, basically it takes maybe five breaths to take one step. I think in a way the video makes students over cautious, which doesn't always help them.

Kenny: It's a great dietary aid too because I think he said he burned 16,000 calories a day…

Edmondson: And you're not hungry.

Kenny: And you're not hungry. I think it probably does put some fear in the participants but that's important, right? Because as they go through this process they need to be factoring in all of these different physical elements of the climb.

Edmondson: They do need to be careful, they need to be systematic, they need to be disciplined. They don't need to be superstitiously risk averse. In other words, what is not helpful is saying, "Oh, the weather doesn't look good, we'll just stay here" or, "Oh, you look like your health is faltering a little, we'll just stay here." You can't climb the mountain if you don't climb the mountain.

Kenny: What is the goal then, what's the ultimate goal for each team?

Edmondson: The goal is to climb the mountain, and the goal is to get everybody up the mountain. That's the way you get the most points.

Kenny: What are some of the challenges that the teams are going to encounter as they're scaling the mountain?

Edmondson: They know already that they have the challenge of safely climbing the mountain. What they don't know is that at various points on the climb they'll be hit by an unexpected challenge. I won't tell you here for purposes of suspense for the simulation exactly what those are, but they're each challenges that the team can absolutely solve if they use the information they have.

Kenny: You've done this with MBA students, you've also done it with students in our executive education program. They're different just by virtue of the fact that some have more experience and more team dynamics than others. How they come at this? Do they come at it differently?

Edmondson: On average the MBA students will do a little bit better because this really is a simulation in which you have to take the number seriously, you have to take the process seriously. The executives have a slightly higher tendency to shoot from the hip.

Kenny: I bet they enjoy this, I bet this is kind of a fun.

Edmondson: They love it, they love it. Another thing we do with the MBAs, and I occasionally do this with the executives, is we give them little cameras and we ask them to videotape their team process while they're having these discussions. Then we send them back to watch certain segments of their videotapes.

It's at that moment where some very profound insights come for them because they literally had no idea they weren't listening to each other. They become quite humbled by the fact that their conversations were not as good, most of them, as they might have thought. In fact for some they just don't even resemble what their own impression of it was.

Kenny: Pretty amazing and probably very similar to the kinds of conversations that we all have every day with our own teams at work.

Edmondson: Absolutely. In fact the real goal of the simulation was that the premise that in order to make good team decisions, and when you have diverse skills, diverse expertise gathered around the table, you've got to thoughtfully, systematically share those insights, share those areas of expertise. Yet, it is so much harder than most people think it is.

The second thing is that we come around the table with some shared goals, of course, but we also have some conflicting goals, and we don't usually deal with those as thoughtfully as we should.

Kenny: Have you been to Mount Everest?

Edmondson: I have not. I have been to Nepal, I've been to Kathmandu. But I have not been to Everest.

Kenny: Closer than most.

Edmondson: Yes, closer than most.

Kenny: Amy, thanks so much for joining me today.

Edmondson: My pleasure. Thank you Brian.

Kenny: You can find Everest: A Leadership and Team Simulation along with thousands of cases in the HBS case collection at hbr.org. I'm your host Brian Kenny and you've been listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

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