Aiming to jump start innovation in your organization? Go climb a mountain.
Innovation is a necessity, a way of life for mountaineers. Climbers plan meticulously then innovate their way through unexpected challenges to reach a summit. With only the limited equipment on their backs, they improvise and flex, intuitively and decisively, as conditions change. They approach problems with a can-do spirit, looking for solutions that allow them to continue to move forward. Often, climbers must size up situations and make decisions in a split second.
Using the innovation skills honed as mountaineers, a group of Everest avalanche survivors recently set their sights on a new “mountain”—helping Nepal get back on its feet. The team, including 17-year-old Matt Moniz, launched a grassroots aid effort, Nepal Relief: Building a Path to Recovery, which has delivered big results in a surprisingly short time. As Matt relayed the details, I noticed 12 distinct activities and mindsets that translate to any innovation effort:
Get clear on the scope of the need.
Imagine losing your home, job, local school, food supply, and clean drinking water—all in a single day. This was the situation for several hundred thousand people, following the devastating April 25 earthquake and aftershocks. In some remote villages, over 90 percent of structures were destroyed.
Research quickly but extensively.
What was being done already to help people? What issues and challenges were other aid providers facing? Where were the “holes”—gaps still in need of a solution? Through asking questions and listening to experts, Matt’s team picked up insights that informed the aid strategy they eventually landed on.
Pick a specific need to focus on.
How does a small group make a meaningful difference, given the staggering loss of infrastructure—more than 500,000 homes and 7,800 schools uninhabitable? Help one family? One village? Tackle one issue, such as providing clean drinking water? Matt’s team concentrated on developing a system to get aid to remote villages in the heavily-damaged Gorkha region.
Identify barriers to meeting the need (physical, procedural, political, etc).
Damaged roads restricted vehicle access. Mudslides and landslides destroyed key walking routes. From June to early September, the region faces a three-month monsoon season when torrential rains interfere with outdoor travel and construction.
Define resource constraints (time, money, manpower, etc).
Though Nepal has an extensive fleet of helicopters to serve the tourism industry, using helicopters to deliver aid is both expensive and inefficient. To fly at high altitude, payloads must be limited. The UN estimated it would take two months of helicopter drops to deliver one month of supplies.
Aid organizations typically focus on how to transport aid to affected communities. Assumption: the burden of transportation is on the aid provider. Setting aside that assumption opened the door for a novel possibility— paying citizens to travel to pick up their own aid, equipping communities to help themselves.
Explore new ways to utilize existing resources.
With Everest closed for the season, the porters who help mountaineers transport their gear during expeditions were suddenly unemployed. Instead of spending between US $1,200 and $4,000 per hour for helicopter services, Matt’s team opted to pay over 1,000 porters to deliver supplies to outlying villages. This provided porters a way to support their families, their own rebuilding efforts, and their local economies.
Get user input instead of guessing or assuming.
In the race to get relief to hard-hit locations, and in the absence of population data for outlying areas, some aid providers experienced quantity mishaps. A 500-pound supply of rice falls far short of feeding 5,000 people. Matt’s team sent runners to remote villages to learn their specific needs. This enabled his group to tailor aid packages, making efficient use of resources and carrying capacity.
Move toward the needs.
Negative talk—such as, “I’m not qualified” or “It’s too big and messy”—is an enemy of innovation.
Be willing to endure hardship.
Pursuit of personal comfort is a second enemy of innovation. Matt’s team ate rice, lentils, and potatoes, three meals a day, for days on end, and trudged miles with heavy loads in order to make a difference.
Have eyes, ears, and feet on the ground.
Hearing “we have access to fresh water but it’s a bit of a hike” isn’t the same as seeing the problem firsthand. Matt and his teammate Paul spent 1.5 hours bushwhacking through a jungle to find the village spring. They subsequently arranged delivery of 4,000 meters of piping to bring spring water to the center of the village.
Sometimes, the best solution gets a job done “well enough” instead of “perfectly.” Matt and his team saw 500 children not in school, so they put in a call for 42 tents, plus pens, pencils, and notebooks. The tent school opened in early June. Though not a permanent solution, it allows kids to regain some sense of normalcy, continue their studies, and shelter from the monsoons.
As mountaineers will attest, innovation is not some hard-to-attain, mystical process. It’s a state of mind and a learned discipline. The drive to reach new heights and conquer formidable challenges sharpens a climber’s ability to problem-solve. Just as innovation is an unconscious reflex for the mountaineer, it can become second nature for your organization, too.
Nepal’s grave situation has faded from U.S. news headlines, but the recovery is far from complete. Please join me in helping fund the ongoing, innovative efforts of Nepal Relief: Building a Path to Recovery by donating here.