What surviving an avalanche taught me about business

By John Winsor | CEO/Founder

June 26, 2015 | 6 min read

We never saw it coming. The whole slope exploded. The earth moved, and the terrain shifted underfoot as an avalanche swept us nearly 1,000 feet toward and then over a 30-foot cliff. I remember the sensation of falling; it was like being caught in a massive washing machine. Through my goggles, I saw flashes of light and utter darkness – alternating, pulsating, flickering in and out. I was upside down then right side up. It seemed to never end.

What started out as one of the most beautiful days I’ve had in the mountains quickly transformed into a 30-minute lesson that changed my perspective – first on life, and then later on business.

Our 14-person ski group survived, albeit with some injuries, but it took a big toll on our confidence. How could such talented and experienced skiers, who had taken all precautions to avoid an avalanche, get caught in a massive Category 3 slide?

Moving fast in complex terrain demands a new set of skills to manage uncertainties to not only survive, but achieve success. It’s not about where you are now, but being prepared for how the terrain around you could change suddenly. Knowledge, education and experience – whether in the mountains or in business – are crucial, but so is developing soft skills.

In marketing, the terrain keeps shifting. Gone are the military-style big-brand assaults with massive client and agency teams throwing unlimited resources at a problem. These brands focus too much on the hard skills built on quantitative metrics instead of the soft skills inherent to understanding the nuances of shifting terrain. The folks with the most experience, tried-and-true processes and proven success are getting swept away as technology democratizes the marketing world.

A world in which brands and their agencies drive and control all aspects of a conversation with customers has been swept away. Consumer control has had the effect of an avalanche on brands and agencies. This shift demands that brands change their marketing in radical ways. To survive and thrive in this new world, brands must develop new mental models, business structures, tools and soft skills.

Here are six soft skills needed to thrive in the consumer-controlled marketing world:

1. Vision: The best skiers envision what’s coming before it actually arrives. They can sense unstable snow and assess the risks in advance. Being successful in these shifting terrains demands the same kind of attention that marketing in the digital and social worlds demand. You have to be able to sense whether something happening in culture will be an opportunity or a threat. Vision comes from being in the environment to know the subtle signs of opportunity and change.

2. Anticipation: A great mountain climber thinks three moves ahead. Interpreting the dynamic terrain in the mountains means anticipating what might happen so as to be ready for failure as much as for success. In marketing, you have to position yourself in the right place at the right time. Success is being in the right place at the right time with the right skills.

3. Commitment: There is always one instant that demands 100 percent of your concentration. It’s the moment you decide if you are in or out. Are you flying off the cliff or still standing there? Marketing in this dynamic world demands the same kind of commitment. You’re either all in or all out. There’s no in between.

4. Flow: Once you’ve sensed the terrain changing and you’ve gotten yourself in the right place at the right time, it’s all about flow. Skiers traversing a new line have difficulty describing how they did it. Today, athletes think of themselves in a new way. It’s not about conquering the environment but being in sync with it. They need non-linear movements to succeed. It takes a delicate balance between relaxation and strain. The terrain is changing faster than you can think. You need to flow through it.

5. Grit: Endurance is a key component to surviving in the mountains. You’re constantly scared. Always excited. The outcome is never known until you’re back on the ground. Likewise, we all need to be better at endurance in marketing. We need to grind things out, and always be a little scared.

6. Partners: Avalanche experts talk about the “human factor.” A group dynamic of overconfidence can be blinding. Same goes with marketing. Too much confidence, built on statistical models and quantifiable management data, can cause an inability to manage uncertainty.

In marketing, as in skiing, you are who you hang with. Choose your partners wisely.

John Winsor is the founder and CEO of Victors and Spoils. He tweets @jtwinsor


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