Disruption-proof Culture Cultivation

Cultivating a rock? Not as crazy as it sounds.

In this world of technology overload it’s easy to forget that progress is often made not by technology, but by people cultivating knowledge gathered over time and, once in a while, by challenging the status quo.

I watched a movie called Valley Uprising on Netflix. It’s the story of a very particular rock climbing site in Yosemite National Park and its history from the 1950s to the present day. While watching the movie, it occurred to me that the story had some surprisingly strong connections to modern work life.

The word “culture” is, at this point, tired, overused and even banal – like “future-proof” or “big data” – so I’ll replace it with “cultivation”.

So here we go.

There’s a legendary rock face called El Capitan’s Nose in Yosemite national park that was, for a long time, considered unscalable by serious rock climbers of the day, such as the legendary Royal Robbins.

Then a climber representing a very different attitude and culture came on the scene. His name was Warren Harding and he started to tackle El Capitan in his own way. It took him 45 days to reach the peak. He went back and forth, attaching new ropes and bolts, descending back to ground for the night when necessary. His methods were considered disruptive in the context of the prevailing climbing culture where peaking the wall in one consecutive climb was of paramount importance.

Harding faced the disapproval of people whose prestige was invested in the status quo.

After Harding first climbed the wall, Royal Robbins went after him using his own technique and finally managed to reach the peak. In the beginning, Robbins removed Harding’s bolts, but somewhere along the way he realized that there was something to Harding’s approach after all. He stopped removing the bolts and continued with his own technique.

Nowadays the fastest free climbers scale the wall using the same route in 2.5 hours. So the time it takes to reach the peak has gone from 45 days to under 2.5 hours (by Alex Hannold). The amount of equipment needed has dropped dramatically. The first climbers had ropes, backpacks, food, sleeping bags etc. Modern-day free climbers have shoes and bag of magnesium.

What happened? The answer is: cultivation.

From the 1950s onwards, three generations of active climbers in Yosemite tackled El Capitan. These climbers all cultivated the knowledge of rock climbing and over time the community changed from a ragtag group of hippies to a magnet for world-class athletes.

It wasn’t the technology, though gear has naturally evolved, too. The fact remains that less gear is now needed than before to scale the wall.

All through the years there were competing cultures between the climbers: the purists, the rock stars, the hippies and the athletes, just to name a few. There were clashes between cultures, but none has come out as superior to the others.

What can a modern company learn from all this? 

  1. Cultivate what you know and when disruption arrives, take benefit from it.
  2. Technology is secondary.
  3. There will be cultural clashes. It’s ok.

But in the end, if your community or company is able to cultivate the knowledge and skills it has, over time you will come out much stronger.

Pro tip: when you are faced with something potentially disruptive in your company, give him or her the benefit of the doubt before judging. In many cases disruptive clashes don’t lead to a revolution and both sides learn something.

You’ll come out much stronger.