Learnings from a Cliff’s Edge: When to De-Risk your Big Ideas | The Garage Group

Learnings from a Cliff’s Edge: When to De-Risk your Big Ideas

We’re excited to welcome Andy Re as one of our newest Associate Strategists. Andy dives into challenges head-first, defining assumptions to test in order to mitigate the risk. With a background in scrappy research to identify whitespace opportunities in the mental healthcare industry, he’s an expert at curating organic consumer interactions and touch points. Andy thrives in the often overwhelming sea of consumer data, turning insights into clear and actionable stories. Andy energizes client engagements, pushing teams to think beyond the status quo, and activating them to run forward with new capabilities. Check out Andy’s lessons learned in identifying the riskiest assumptions early in order to save his life,

I have identified myself as “a thrill seeker,” “a change agent,” and “a risk taker.” I wore the last identity as a badge of pride, believing that the ability to blind myself and move forward in the face of fear was a strength best untempered. I was wrong.

Idea: Let’s rock climb a multi-pitch route (over 100 feet tall) in North Carolina this winter to escape the cold Ohio weather and gain experience on bigger cliffs.

We began to study the area, looking for ideal mountains and gorges with climbable cliffs within our physical capability. We decided on a well-established route that climbs out of a deep gorge to a beautiful mountain ridgeline. The trip would comprise of primitive camping on the ridgeline, hiking to the canyon floor at sunrise, and climbing the 400-foot cliff back to our campsite before dark.

Assumption #1: The loose instructions we found online will provide us with enough information to navigate the hike and climb.

The day came, and we set off down the trail at first light. We followed directions printed off of a random website that was supposed to guide us on a simple path down switchbacks into the gorge. The directions were insufficient. We got lost and ended up burning daylight tracking down muddy slopes and thorny bramble that cut and tore at us for miles. Four hours later, we found the large crack in the stone cliff we were meant to climb. After a couple of hundred feet of climbing, we quickly realized that we were nowhere near the top, or even halfway.

Assumption #2: If we struggle to complete the climb, we can always repel down the wall, and hike back to camp.

My partner and I sat in our harnesses investigating, feet dangling in the open air, passing back pieces of a printed out pictures and maps of the gorge system and cliff face. We eventually realized the route we were intending to climb could be accessed from the side, halfway up the entire rock feature, meaning, the climb was supposed to be 400 feet from the middle of the cliff to the top ridgeline. We were going to have to climb over 700 feet from the canyon floor to the top. Without any idea of where the actual trail that leads back to our camp was, meant that the only way we could confidently get home was by going up.

Assumption #3: We will have time to hike down and climb back up before sunset.

It was then that the sun started to creep behind the horizon. We raced up the wall, executing the climb better than we could have imagined, but not fast enough. The last bit of day-glow vanished and we were scrambling through our packs for our headlamps. We were now in complete darkness, unable to see anything but the small cones of light from our lamps. As the sun set, the comfortable sunny, 50-degree weather gave way to freezing winds, and we realized how underdressed we were.

Assumption #4: Verbal commands alone will provide enough communication to climb safely.  

At this point in the climb, we were maybe 200 feet from the top, and my partner was gearing up to lead the charge up the most challenging portion. This meant he would climb upward and look for the next place to anchor the rope so that I could follow. I had a nice eight-inch ledge where I could stand and hug the wall, shielding myself from the biting wind. My partner set off climbing up and around a corner of a jettisoned part of rock, putting him out of sight. We had an established communication system for times like this: when he completes a 100-foot section, is safe and ready for me to climb, he will yell, “Belay On!” We made sure to constantly yell to each other, attempting to stay in contact. The higher he climbed, however, the more the wind choked our screams until all I could hear was the wind whistling in my ears.

For the next hour, I continued to feed the rope through my device as I felt it tug, knowing this meant my partner was still climbing. When the rope stopped tugging, I assumed he was fixing himself to the wall, and preparing for me to follow. I waited to hear “Belay On.” I waited for an hour, continuously yelling his name. With the howling wind, I could hardly hear myself scream. My head was racing with worst-case scenarios as time ticked by. What if he got stuck in the crack we are climbing? What if he’s unconscious? My fingers were turning grey while I jumped in place to keep my blood flowing. If I lose feeling in my hands, I won’t be able to climb, and I can’t risk being in the freezing weather all night. I checked my phone; 5% battery left and no reception. If there’s an emergency I’ll have to handle it. Another hour passed, and out of sheer desperation, I made the decision to risk my own safety and climb up after him. Just as I was psyching myself up, preparing to release my final carabiner clipping myself to the wall, I heard “Belay On!” carried by the wind.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the many little assumptions I made that amounted to this high-risk idea. I assumed this awareness was only made possible in hindsight: You take the risk and succeed, or you fail and learn something. What if I learned a broader context to my idea and minimized its riskiest assumptions, turning my foolish risk into a smart one?

First, I would ask myself a series of probing questions: What am I assuming to be true? What has to align in my favor? I would have identified the assumptions listed above far before failure happened. Second, with my assumptions identified, I would have begun to test and minimize them through learning: I could have talked to a climber who has completed the route beforehand to get feedback on trail directions. I could have timed myself climbing other routes to anticipate how much time it would take. Any of these experiments would have eliminated the need for my risky assumptions.

My mistake was taking risk pursuit to a dangerous limit. Perhaps you are more risk-averse? Staring down the barrel of a decision that could mean the loss of years of work, the loss of your team’s budget, or the failure of a product launch. Identify your leap of faith assumptions, and plan a reliable test to make the unknown known. Let the cliff’s edge be your warning signal for when to de-risk your big ideas. Belay On!

Explore More