No More Superheroes…

I was more of a Batman kid. I mean Superman was cool and all but there was something about that menacing black colour that got my attention. Whether it be a firefighter, ballet dancer or cape wearing villain from Marvel, we likely all had our preference and I suspect we all still do. Maybe, just maybe, our favourite superheroes can overcome the system

I have been climbing cliffs and mountains for 20 years, spending the last 15 of those years guiding others up cold and windy peaks. This experience has ignited my new version of superhero; those climbers that seem to be able climb higher, faster and harder, those climbers that seem to be able to miraculously beat the odds, beat the system. A few weeks ago one of those, Ueli Steck, perhaps the greatest of his generation, died on Everest. This momentarily reached the mainstream media, likely due to the Everest context, however it has sent shockwaves through the climbing community. Our invincible was not immune to the system afterall.

My research focuses on the rapid formation of effective teams in high consequence environments and fast changing systems. There is a wealth of research and knowledge on the factors that contribute to successful teams and likewise success factors for teams operating in high consequence environments (e.g. the military). Initial exploration of the literature suggests that many of these factors are predicated on a traditional team progression – what I refer to as an ‘intact team’. Little however has been done to explore the dynamics of teams that form rapidly as an emergent property of the system; bystanders in an emergency, emergency service workers on rotating shifts or even project teams that form for hours not months for example. If these ‘emergent teams’ – rapidly forming, changing and disbanding as emergent properties of the system – are increasing in frequency and operating in organisations, situations and environments with very real consequence, then what factors will influence successful outcomes? Do the old models still work? What can be done to build effective teams in minutes or hours, not years?


Mountain climbing history has predominantly been driven by ‘Siege Tactics’; well trained, highly resourced teams lay ‘seige’ to the mountain, committing the time and the people required to overcome the challenge. Mountain environments are rapidly changing, dangerous and very unpredictable. Seige tactics seeks to overcome this through control – a misguided attempt to overcome the system. This approach has seen much success but largely at an unacceptable cost in people, time and resources by today’s standards. A new style of climbing emerging over the last two decades, known as ‘Alpine Style’, presents a very different way to climb a mountain; small teams travelling fast and light, commit fully to the mountain and deal with challenges as they arise. As if to say, rather than trying to control the system, they understand that they are part of the system.

Ueli Steck defined the pinnacle of Alpine Style; full commitment to the mountain understanding that success and consequence for any climb was an emergent property of the system. Perhaps the climbing community have yet to grapple with this. Despite the new ‘Alpine’ approach, perhaps we secretly thought that maybe if we could just climb fast enough, hard enough, we could overcome the system. Perhaps our superheroes could do it. Maybe, just maybe, Ueli could overcome the system. We were wrong.

An exploration of the literature and factors contributing to rapid formation of teams in dynamic systems is going to come with a requirement to accept that the success of the team will be an emergent property of the system. Superheroes needn’t apply.

Tim Gill is a Masters Degree candidate within the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems

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