A lesson in communication: tackling Mount Everest

May 28 2013

Mount Everest (left) and Mount Lhotse. PHOTO: James C. Farmer/Flickr

Mount Everest (left) and Mount Lhotse. PHOTO: James C. Farmer/Flickr

Recently, the STEMwire and Reese News Lab interns accepted a challenge: work together to climb a virtual Mount Everest. The activity called on the participants to use their communication skills to successfully complete a computer-based climb.

The Harvard Business School created the Everest simulation as a team-building exercise. In the computer game, you and a team of four must successfully climb the tallest mountain in the world in six “days” – in real life, about two hours. The trek requires a climber to monitor his or her health, watch weather forecasts and choose a travel speed. The players must avoid being airlifted back to base camp, so avoiding altitude sickness or frostbite is crucial. The team has a set of goals it should meet along the journey to accumulate as many points as possible.

Each person is assigned a new identity, complete with a backstory. The team consists of a photographer, marathoner, environmentalist, physician and a leader. I assumed the role of an award-winning Chilean photographer who had completed the illustrious trek twice before.

Almost immediately, my team realized that our individual goals didn’t always coincide with the team goals. My personal goals called for me to spend an extra day at Camp One and Two to gather footage for an upcoming video. I sacrificed my goals for the team so I could continue to travel with them. Stopping at a camp would have caused me to travel alone. If I got sick, I would be away from the physician who was the only one who could dole out medicine. If I was airlifted, I would hurt the team, because we would all get extra points if we arrived at the summit together.

This part of the simulation taught me that my own aims are not always the most important to a final product. At work, if I only try to further myself, our website will suffer. For example, when I edit an article solo, I might overlook style and grammar mistakes, but when we edit as a team, we make fewer errors.

My group also learned that the key to a successful mission was to share all the information we were given each day. The game gave each of us different information about illness warning signs or information about how many oxygen tanks it would be necessary to use on the climb. We were able to successfully diagnose our environmentalist with asthma and give her an inhaler only because we all shared our knowledge. Even when we could only communicate by typing our thoughts in a chat forum because we were at different camps, we still shared our information.

The leader of the group had an important task. She could earn the most points for the group, and many of those points rested on getting us safely up the mountain.

Before making a decision about whether to move on to the next camp, we all blurted out our thoughts on the situation. Our leader helped us organize this confusion by asking each person to share his or her opinion one by one. Because she allowed each person to be heard, she kept the group morale up and helped us reach a quick and effective decision.

The simulation taught me a valuable lesson in communication, because it showed me that everyone brings their own unique strengths to a situation. By sharing them with each other, we will perform better, whether that is in a virtual world or at work.

I also learned that everyone interprets information in a different way. Whenever we listen to an outside speaker for STEMwire, we have a ‘debriefing’ session afterward to organize our thoughts. I now especially appreciate these discussions, because I realize that everyone’s unique perspective causes them to retain different information and assign a variety of meanings to it. Discussing our thoughts in a group allows these differing perspectives to come to light.

Because of our good communication, all but one person from our team reached the summit. However, the best part of the simulation was when one of our directors really got into her role as an expedition leader, showing up in mountain climbing gear complete with a parka, gloves and a ski hat.

Reese News Lab Senior Producer Sara Peach was dressed to conquer a mountain. Photo: Lilly Knoepp

Reese News Lab Senior Producer Sara Peach was dressed to conquer a mountain. Photo: Lilly Knoepp


One comment on “A lesson in communication: tackling Mount Everest

  1. […] I would say that the first week focused on brainstorming, team building, and guest lectures, this week has opened the Pandora’s Box of deadlines, work flows, and, […]

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