How the 1996 Everest tragedy provides great lessons for business planning | Macro

How the 1996 Everest tragedy provides great lessons for business planning


By Russell Stevens, Account Director, Macro

‘It is great having a plan, and we love it even more when it comes together. But what use is it if you don’t communicate it in the right way to all the stakeholders? Following on from my previous blog about the parallels between mountaineering and facilities management, I am reminded of the terrible Everest tragedy of 1996 which left 12 dead, an event that is now roundly considered as having been avoidable.

One of the main pressures on that fateful day was between the two teams who launched their summit bid together that morning. Scott Fisher’s Mountain Madness team and Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants teams were both under pressure to have successful summit bids that year. More clients to the top means more business the following year as clients want to go with the best and get to the top.

Over the course of that day some of the members made it to the top and some didn’t.  Those that were late got caught in a terrible storm, got lost or were stuck at altitude and died.

It is clear from the many accounts that there was some confusion about the ‘turnaround time’. The ‘turnaround time’ is the time by which, wherever you are on the mountain, you turn around and come back down to high camp. Everyone had their own account of what the time should have been, but surely this isn’t something that should have been open to interpretation! The two teams should have agreed the final time and ensured everyone was aware of it.

Some of the guides had the right equipment, such as radios, and some didn’t. Despite some accounts to the contrary, that the storm arrived unexpectedly, it now seems that the affected teams were receiving weather forecasts from another team on the mountain. A team they had passed on the way up to high camp who were returning to base camp because they didn’t like the weather. This means that information was not being shared, known risks were being ignored and potentially, if they had not suffered themselves, they would have allowed other teams to ascend the following day knowing they were heading into a dangerous storm.

Losing human lives is clearly very different to business risk but the parallels for managing and reducing risk are fundamentally the same; what lessons can be learned to ensure your work projects are not de-railed? Ensuring you have a robust communication plan is a great way to start.

Ask the classic Who? What? When? Where? How? Questions to identify your stakeholders, their needs and your methodology:

1)    Who are your stakeholders? List them out. It should include all parties although they may be split into different groups depending on their involvement with your project.

2)    What details need to be communicated to each group? Not everybody needs everything but everybody needs something.

3)    When. How often will you communicate with your stakeholder groups? It may be easy to send messages frequently electronically or maybe some only need summaries at longer time intervals. You decide and plan. You can always change it as you go along (as long as you communicate the changes).

4)    Where.  What media you will use. Formal documents, e-mail, social media, text, all of those but different for different groups or differing importance? You decide what works and why.

5)    How.  This is really about your team members responsibilities for the communication. Can the project support a dedicated communication coordinator or is it the responsibility of many with the project manager overseeing/approving? Again, plan and document.

I am not saying that doing all that would have avoided the tragedy on Everest that night, but I do think it would have managed the risks better. Your work projects are hopefully not as physically demanding, as technically complex or as risky as taking people up Everest but, in our fast paced world of FM, it can often feel that way!

The 1996 tragedy is one of the most captivating Everest stories because of the complex dynamics of the characters in the teams, both client and guide. It is extremely well told in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (American Krakauer summited and survived as part of Rob Hall’s team that day), Anatoli Boukreev (A Russian guide on Scott Fisher’s team that day who summited without use of oxygen) and G Weston DeWalt’s The Climb and the analysis of the question of the weather forecasts in Graham Ratcliffe’s (a British climber who was at high camp that night but remained unaware of the tragedy going on around him until the morning) A Day To Die For.’



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