Jul 30, 2009

The free-climbing guide to planning and problem-solving

In my opinion, problem-solving is one of the key components of a planner's craft.

But too often, problem-solving carries with it a connotation of the ungraceful and the ungainly. Of putting the end before the means, and of putting effectiveness over ingenuity.

The thinking, to misquote Albert Einstein, is "if you're out to solve a problem, leave elegance to the tailor."

The same probably goes for rock-climbing - it doesn't matter how scrappy or clumsy one seems when toiling on a rock-face, boulder or a cliff. To clamber to the top is the goal - achieving that leads to safety and triumph.

But not to John Bachar, whose obituary featured in a recent issue of The Economist.

John Bachar was one of the world's best free-climbers - "a professional sport with no coaches or rule-books, where each climber planned his own tactics himself. It was, in his own words, the real deal."

The piece gives us a pretty good idea of how John climbed:
"John Bachar climbed slowly, like a spider—or, as he preferred to say, a starfish. He seemed to move in slow motion, swinging his legs out in parallel to seek a ledge, pulling to a crouch, raising one graceful arm to grab a hold. Nothing was hurried; all was smooth and unforced... His only equipment, apart from rubber-soled boots, was a bag of chalk slung at the back of his belt, into which he dipped his hands to dry the sweat and improve his grip. He had no ropes, bolts or pitons, and preferably no knowledge of the ascent except what he had gleaned from the ground, telling himself “Dude, there’s some holds here, man.” There was just John Bachar, working out the rock. He could only have been more pure, he said, if he had gone up naked."
But what really suprised me were his sentiments upon reaching the top:
"Unlike mountaineers, he felt no urge to conquer the rock-face. Getting to the top didn’t matter. All that counted was the grace, control and style of how he got there. The rock was his superior and, he felt, should remain as if he had never climbed it."
And, therefore:
"He was horrified to find, when free-climbing in France, that holds had been chiselled in the rock face and stone-like grips glued on. He was offended to come across rusty bolts, or so-called free-climbers setting advance protection for themselves. The effect of all this was to “lower the rock to your level”, removing its capacity to challenge and surprise."
"Lowering the rock to our level" - that struck me as something agencies, and a lot of us, do with the problems/challenges we face. By hammering in bolts and sticking grips in the rock, for us to grapple with when we return or when others follow in our path. By using and touting proprietary planning models/tools as the ropes, bolts and pitons that would tame any marketing/communication challenge.

On the other hand - as John Bachar practiced - a purer alternative would be to contemplate every challenge/problem as a superior that should be allowed the dignity of posing its riddle and continuing to challenge and surprise those that follow after us.

And by doing so, we'll probably enrich our planner colleagues more - and our planning models less.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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