“Agility starts with the mindset.”
Interview with the extreme sports and endurance athlete Anja Blacha on how best to apply your skills.
Ms. Blacha, what marks the starting point of a 57-day walk all alone to the South Pole?
Anja Blacha: A couple of years ago, I decided to go trekking and bought a pair of trekking shoes. These shoes marked the first step that led me to the top of 8000-meter mountains and to the South Pole. I let each step inspire me and carry me further and further, and so I grew into bigger and bigger shoes. But, of course, there is more: being open to taking the first step is an incredibly helpful principle. You need an open, inquisitive mindset. I had both the curiosity and the open-mindedness to go for it.
Others call this a prerequisite for agility...
Yes, it is part of an agile mindset. But it is more than that: it also includes the ingenuity or resourcefulness to create something out of what you already have. Take me, for example: I’m not particularly tall or muscular. That’s a disadvantage when you’re pulling a sled across the Antarctic ice. For me, this meant compensating for this disadvantage by better planning my sled load. The question is: what abilities or resources do I have at my disposal and how can I best apply them?
Are there any more parallels to agile processes in business?
Agility means extreme discipline. And polar expeditions require maximum discipline. My polar expedition was divided into six sprints. Six clear stages with clear terrain and weather conditions. Each sprint completed represented an achievement. In addition, I had to complete 57 daily stand-ups, real stand-ups. And I had to report back every 24 hours. The mileage I had covered, my location, how I was doing. True, I was accountable only to myself, because no one was telling me what to do. Nevertheless, this put additional pressure on me: what did I manage to do today and what didn’t I. After all, not every day is the same...
And that also means not reaching your intermediate goals – and what then?
Agility also means reacting to changes. After all, somehow things always turn out differently. Then I had to think about doing overtime. Would I rather do overtime on good days or would I do it on bad days – also known as the “taxi driver problem”: if I don’t meet my daily target on bad days, do I keep going or not? Or: if I’m ahead of my target on good days – do I stop or do I keep going? Let me tell you: on bad days, it’s better to just tell yourself, it’s not going to happen today, I’ll have to make up for it on the good days.
For taxi drivers, the limit is some time late at night; but in the south polar winter it was light twenty-four hours a day...
Yes, but running until you drop is not sustainable. Delivering top performance 57 days non-stop is not sustainable if you don’t manage to build in enough breaks for recovery. I had divided my days into intervals, interspersed with mostly five-minute breaks. Distributed over 57 days, that’s an insane amount of time, but necessary.
Clausewitz or Moltke coined the phrase that the best plan does not survive the first enemy contact. To what extent did this apply to your planning?
Reality does not adhere to Excel sheets. Or: somehow things always turn out differently. That also includes plan deviations that you know are going happen, but which you hope you might be able to avoid. I knew that bad weather could delay me but didn’t expect it to do so right at the beginning and for so many days. After all, I had only a limited window of opportunity offered by the south polar summer and the resources I had budgeted for.
You walked to the South Pole, but there is also the return: were you able to get back to everyday life?Before setting out, it was important for me to realize that I am expendable. I can trust my employees to manage without me. And that meant I could go on this tour in the first place and with a clear conscience. Then I came back and realized that I can also do without a lot of things. Do I really need all the different things and habits? Do I reclaim them or leave them out of my life because they don’t add any value?
Anja Blacha is a German endurance and extreme sports athlete. In 2017, Blacha, who was born in 1990, climbed Mount Everest and became the youngest German woman to conquer the highest mountains of the continents, the Seven Summits. In 2019, she was the first German woman to climb K2. In 2020, she accomplished the longest solo, unassisted polar expedition undertaken by a woman in the world, skiing from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.
Ms. Blacha grew up in Bielefeld, Germany, and lives and works in Zurich. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Mannheim and completed a Master’s degree in Philosophy.
Ms. Blacha eventually grew tired of not being taken seriously when talking about her goals, so she turned the phrase she heard on these occasions into her personal motto: “Not bad for a girl.”