Leading the Project? Define Your Charter to Support High Performance

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Effective leadership is a critical success factor for projects of all shapes and sizes.

And breathing is good for living.

It’s hard to argue with either of these statements, nonetheless, too many project managers deeply skilled in the mechanics of their vocation fall short on learning and practicing the soft-skills critical for high performance team development. When project fail…and too many do, there’s a safe bet that people-related issues are key contributors to the initiative’s demise.

Great project managers define their role beyond the project mechanics liberally. Working with team members at the front-end of the project to define the role and accountabilities of the project leader is a great practice that improves the odds of team success. The development of a Project Leader’s Charter is a simple, powerful technique that helps everyone involved gain a clear, consistent and comprehensive view of the leader’s role.

Great project leadership is both science and art. A large part of the role is about forming and framing the environment for your talented team members to do their best work in pursuit of meeting customer and stakeholder needs. Ensuring that you and the team define the values that drive acceptable behaviors to tackling the sticky issues of how decisions will be made to how the team will talk, work, decide, resolve and perform together are all captured in your Project Leader’s Charter.

Seven Simple Steps to Defining and Developing Your Own Project Leader’s Charter:

1. Start by Asking Questions: take the time to think deeply about what your role in creating success with this initiative should be. Meet individually and in groups to discuss the following:

  • What’s the nature of this project? Innovation? Implementation? New development?
  • How does the project connect to firm’s/customer’s strategic initiatives?
  • What are the critical success factors for this initiative to succeed?
  • What does this team need from project leadership to succeed?
  • The pre-post mortem, part 1: assume the project has concluded successfully, what might you imagine we would say about the project leader’s role and contributions to the success of this initiative?
  • The pre-post mortem, part 2: assume things went wrong and we failed to hit our objectives. Where did project leadership let us down?
  • You get a vote…ask and answer: what can I do to optimize our chances of success?

2. Write the Draft: armed with the input from your team members, write a draft of the charter. Start with, “My Charter as Project Leader is… .” Strive to minimize the cliché statements and use verb phrases that specifically describe what you will do and what you are accountable for with this initiative. Length isn’t incredibly relevant…from a few well developed sentences to a couple of paragraphs supported by bullets. Quality and clarity count more than length.

3. Review the Draft with Team Members and Solicit Feedback: the iterative nature of this activity ensures that team members buy-in to your role and clearly understand what to expect. An indirect benefit is that this will challenge them to think about their role as well. Revise and share the final draft.

(Best Practice Tip: one project manager I know has everyone on a team create and share their individual Charters with each other as a means of ensuring role clarity and visibility.)

4. Post the Charter: I love to see these shared in project documents as well as made visible and public for the duration of the project. Some Project Managers hang them in their offices or cubicles. Others grab wall space for project documents and ensure that this is visible in that public setting.

5. Live the Charter. Daily: the exercise of writing the Charter is healthy. Reading it daily and considering how to incorporate the key tenets in your day’s activities is priceless.

6. Remember the Charter When “It” Hits the Fan: something always go wrong at some point in time. The Charter is your guide to the right behaviors in the middle of whatever crisis is threatening your team. Return to it and develop your actions in concert with the behaviors and values outlined in the document.

7. Ask the Team to Evaluate Your Performance Using the Charter as a Guide. We learn by doing and feedback is part of the process of growing and improving. Ask your team members to evaluate your performance versus the key tenets and behaviors/activities identified in your Charter. Use this input as rocket fuel for improving with your next project adventure.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Striving for high performance should be the goal for every project manager on every project. It’s lofty, difficult and in some cases, the pursuit of high performance gets lost in the haste and pace to navigate the pitfalls and move the army forward. Let a carefully thought-through Charter serve as a guide to your True North during every project. Get your role right as project leader and the odds of success for the entire team, your firm and your customer improve dramatically.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Just One Thing—Quit Playing Down to Their Level

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

Good competition raises the level of performance for all involved.

Whether in athletic endeavors or business, a skilled, aggressive competitor forces us to raise the quality of our own game. Strenuous competition with aggressive, skilled performers tests us physically and mentally and helps us find that extra gear needed to perform at our best.

Annoyingly, the opposite also seems to hold true. When the level of competition is low, we typically back off of our own best game.

In business, lack of aggressive competition or the lack of highly skilled performers results in a fat, dumb and happy cadence in the workplace. We lose our edge and we settle into a gear that minimizes stress and conserves fuel. Hunger disappears. The drive to innovate or to pursue excellence abates. Effectively, we play down to the level of the competition.

Great performers love to be around other great performers…whether on the same team or on opposing sides. Just the presence of highly skilled performers is enough to help us raise our performance expectations and levels. When confronted with the opposite, it’s awkward…less interesting and less motivating for them.

I see the negative form of this situation play out in the workplace in a number of different ways.

Good people with fresh ideas and new ways of approaching old problems find themselves swimming in a sea of toxic politics or suppressed by a crowd of collegial passive-aggressive types. Eventually, they grow tired of swimming against the tide and jump out in search of fresh challenges.

The brilliant individual contributor is hired to help lead the firm in a new direction and after the welcome messages fade, she finds herself in some form of alternate reality where heads nod in the right direction and people focus their energy in another. Some recognize this situation early in their tenure, and when solid efforts at coalition building yield little in the way of support, they leave…with most people failing to recognize the future of the business walking out the door.

The worst of all of these situations is a team of hard-working, capable people who are hungry to promote change but held back by poor leadership. In my experience, many of these people refuse to give in to the reality that the big changes they believe in and need to help the firm level-up are not forthcoming. They continue to raise the issues to little or no response and meanwhile, they execute their day jobs in good fashion, settling for any morsels of improvement they can drive. And slowly, over time, their expectations and their cry for “new” or “improved” reduces to an occasional whisper and they begin to accept the current state. This is when they’ve let the other players reduce the level of their game.

The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong. Moving from mediocrity towards excellence takes remarkable energy and great leadership. In the absence of great leadership, the acceptance of mediocrity across the culture wins.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No business can thrive when key individuals or teams are playing down to a level that resembles mediocrity. No one can survive and thrive in their career by playing down a level. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Either refuse to give up…find a way forward…or find a better team to play on.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Helping Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Situation

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

“85-percent of organizational problems are system related and only 15-percent are related to people.” –W. Edwards Deming

As managers, it’s our sacred responsibility to create and continuously improve an environment and system that allows our people to do their best work.

This system that Deming speaks of is an amalgam of the values, behaviors, processes and approaches in pursuit of the firm’s core mission that define the personality of an organization. The approaches and processes around decision-making, planning, developing talent and executing on projects and core operations are all part of the system. Innovation, creativity, employee and customer engagement and financial performance are critical outcomes of an effective system.

Few managers would disagree with their responsibility and accountability for creating this effective environment. Like breathing, it’s a good idea to invest time and energy in practices that promote a healthy, efficient and effective system. In reality, many firms do a good job of this in stable markets…the operative word being “stable.”

I’ve worked in and around many organizations where the firm’s leaders point proudly to a long string of successful years and effectively suggest that they’ve cracked the code of sustaining performance. Their organizations are well-tuned for the current state, the numbers are just good enough to keep stakeholders happy and employees have that swagger of consistent champions.

And Then “It” Happens:

“It” is most often some form of disruption…an unanticipated competitor move, a new market entrant, a disruptive technology innovation or some unexpected shock to society. Regardless of the source, change becomes the order of the day and the long-successful senior leaders react to the situation in a logical fashion and begin to talk about the firm moving down a new path with new strategies or approaches.

New initiatives and projects are born and the latest books consumed in search of answers or approaches that lead to answers. And when results aren’t immediately visible, energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and innovation wane and the pursuit of new consistently loses out to the gravitational pull of the old. From investment dollars and attention, the pursuit of new is often suffocated…for what seems like perfectly rational reasons chasing today’s problems. After a period of time, the wheels on the vehicle that is the effort to pursue new begin to wobble and parts start to fly off as the firm races towards an uncertain destination via an unknown path through uncharted terrain.

With apologies for mixed metaphors, the ride begins to resemble Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing and horrifying post-presidential journey deep into uncharted portions of the Amazon, as he and his colleagues navigated all manner of disasters and dangers as they followed the aptly named River of Doubt.

Once the dangers become visible and the wobble of the wheels sensed by everyone, the fun begins. That is if you find journeying through organizational and career hell some form of perverse fun.

The Level-Up Opportunity:

This moment in time when a firm faces the critical need to change is what I describe as a Level-Up opportunity.  Level-Up opportunities typically involve individuals, teams or entire firms learning to navigate situations of extreme ambiguity and potential peril. We face them as individuals in our careers as we take on new challenges and climb the ladder of responsibility. Organizations face Level-Up opportunities as they strive to do something new…develop and implement a new strategy, move to a new market, capture a new group of customers or pursue an innovation they perceive will leverage their strengths and enhance their fortunes.

It’s somewhere during the flailing phase at the front-end of of a Level-Up situation that people recognize that the old system doesn’t work for new needs. Sure, business the old way continues just fine, after all the system is optimized for the old. However, when it comes to new, the gears grind, the engine smokes, rpms rise and speed slows to a crawl.

It’s time to change the system.

The old ways don’t work for new markets, customers, technologies or business models. It’s also at this time where too many senior leaders choose the wrong paths and tactics. Like Roosevelt’s team attempting to descend a seemingly never-ending number of treacherous rapids and falls during their journey down the River of Doubt, what worked for us at the last rapid or fall results in us smashing our canoes to bits on the rocks in this new environment, endangering lives and squandering precious time and resources.

Beware the Siren Song of Two Powerful Actions:

There are two reflexive actions by senior managers that often exacerbate the wobble. The first is a creeping belief that the people that brought them this far aren’t the right people for the journey ahead. They begin to doubt the abilities of their people to learn, adapt and succeed.

The second mistake is to assume that the organization’s structure is at fault. It’s not. It’s the strategy and system.

While there are nuggets of truth in both of these reflexive thoughts, the actions must be filtered against a clear strategy and tempered appropriately or you risk making a difficult situation impossible.

Change is difficult. Ambiguity and complexity are powerful adversaries in the fight for successful change, and while no simple list of ideas offer the absolute right answers, these seven are intended to help you strive for clarity and simplicity while learning to deal step by step with ambiguity.

Seven Ideas to Help Your Firm Navigate a Level-Up Opportunity:

1. Senior Executives Must Link Arms on the New Strategy Direction. Easy words…damned difficult to achieve in practice. Most senior leaders struggle to show up in the same zip code on strategy much less end up on the same page in the same book in the same house. CEO leadership is essential here…with clarity as an absolute and once the direction is set, senior manager compliance essential. Fight it out with vigor and honor, but link arms and go forward aligned and resolute.

2. It’s Not a Strategy If No One in the Firm Understands It. The hard work of strategy begins after the boardroom brawling ends on this topic. Your job is to simplify the strategy and ensure that everyone not only gets it, but sees how they play a role in supporting it.

3. Remember, It’s Not Important to People Just Because You Said it Is. Don’t assume awareness equals either understanding or support. Your approach to strategy development and then execution task definition and implementation must get everyone involved in offering input and backing words with actions..

4. Bet on Your People First and then Acquire to Fill Key Gaps. There’s no doubt that anything new requires education, training and yes, some fresh perspectives from people immune to the firm’s dominant logic. Strive to objectively assess the skills needed for the new strategy and then focus on whether those skills can be learned, trained or whether they must be acquired. We’re too quick to assume acquisition is the answer…when the reality is that your good people are typically hungry for something big and new to do and willing to pour their hearts and souls into it. (For people who resist new learning and new directions, drop them off politely and professionally at the next rest stop. You’ve got no time to waste.)

5. Tune the Organization to Align Superpowers with Key Opportunities. Instead of assuming that a new structure is the solution….something that often emerges from these challenging and frequently political battles over change, use as your emphasis aligning the absolute best resources with the biggest opportunities. Strategy should highlight the best opportunities…now, plug in the people with the right superpowers to succeed for each key opportunity. More often than not, wholesale restructuring squanders precious time and creates confusion. The Superpower-to-Opportunity approach reduces resistance and accelerates the time to implementation so critical in this situation.

6. Use Formal Project Management Practices to Execute the Key Strategy Initiatives. Most strategies breakdown in the execution phase…not the idea phase. For your key initiatives, establish formal project teams complete with an executive sponsor, a clear charter and scope and a well define project team with priorities and targets. Then use this project-focus to provide visibility into progress and to capture lessons learned along the way.

7. Use Process Mapping Relentlessly to Support Building the New System. The work of mapping out key processes around selling, marketing, supporting, deciding, measuring etc. is priceless. Remember that the gravitational pull of “we’ve done it this way” is extremely powerful. Process Mapping helps identify opportunities for new approaches and of course, it highlights flaws, blind spots, inefficiencies and in general it supports cross-functional collaboration and learning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deming was once asked what he hoped his legacy would be. In the interview (I paraphrase), he responded quickly with, “I’ll doubt I’ll be remembered at all.” Then after thinking about it, he offered, “I would like to be remembered for trying to help (American) companies from committing suicide.”

The seven suggestions above are not foreign to most senior leaders. They reflect some good commonsense. However, their use in synchronization is way too rare. When striving to navigate a Level-Up opportunity and adapt your system to changing circumstances, using these ideas is like breathing…a really good idea. Anything else has a bad outcome. Now, breathe…

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine™—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Revisiting The 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

Roald AmundsenNote from Art: given the recent storms and polar-like weather in the Midwest and Northeast, it seems fitting to revisit the priceless management and leadership lessons gleaned from Amundsen and Scott in their race to 90-degrees south. These lessons never grow cold!

In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I’ve become a bit obsessed with studying the 1910 expeditions and race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to 90-degrees South (the South Pole).  The lessons for leaders and managers practically leap off the pages of this classic example of coping with risk, uncertainty and volatility.

This “Heroic Era” of polar exploration was capped off (really bad pun!) by Amundsen and Scott, in what turned into an adventure where Amundsen beat Scott to the pole and safely returned, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

I have Jim Collins to thank for this latest management segue, as he draws upon this same race and the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite them All. (Note: While Collins hooked me, see my suggestion at the end of the post for much deeper reading on the topic.)

The level of preparation that Amundsen and team put into their polar expedition was both monumental and commendable.

All students of project management and management and leadership in general should study this case.  The comparison and contrast between Amundsen’s approach and Scott’s is fascinating and highly relevant to leading initiatives and organizations in today’s turbulent workplace environment.

For the rest of us, here are a few lessons gleaned from my just-started study of this fascinating event.

At Least 5 Key Lessons Gained from Studying Amundsen and Scott:

1. The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Right.  Amundsen’s selection of a previously uncharted path to 90-degrees South was contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of the time.  Long voiced concerns about the stability of the ice in the area kept prior expeditions from considering Amundsen’s starting point. His own painstaking review of the various logs of prior explorers suggested that the geology hadn’t changed much in decades. He decided to take this risk in return for a straighter, shorter (albeit completely unknown) line to his destination. While his choice introduced an element of risk, he viewed the payoff for success as worth it.

How often do you let the conventional wisdom dictate your approach to a complex problem?

2. Focus Means Focus. Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the South Pole. Everything he did…the months of preparation, the customization of his tools…and everything he had done earlier in his life, including, living with the Inuit, led to his preparation for success in the harsh polar environment. Scott had a mixed agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his challenges.

It’s always tempting to tag on goals that seem complementary. Beware the dilution and distraction effect. In another work, Collins describes our tendency to engage in the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” We’re always best served by clarifying and then laser-focusing on the mission at hand.

 3. Luck Happens-It’s What You Do with It that Counts. In Amundsen’s words: “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather luck. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck…good or bad is completely within our control.

 4. Tailor the Tools to the Mission. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months wiling away their time with lectures (to each other) and reading, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customizing every single piece of equipment to improve their odds of surviving anything. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably. Amundsen redesigned his skis and ski bindings, his crates, his critical paraffin containers and everything else with the idea of safety, security, light-weight, ease of use from set-up to stowing all the driving goal. And he took tips from the Inuit on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped managed sweating and heat retention/loss.

Too often we expect our technology tools and generic practices to yield great results. Take a page from Amundsen and tailor your tools to the mission in front of you.

 5. Nobility is Nice, but Practicality Wins. Scott and his crew viewed it as noble to man-haul their sledges and gears. Yes, man-haul. Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

Pride and nobility goeth before the fall. Don’t get caught up in the nobility of your tactics, when there may well be a better, less-elegant approach to save the project, your job or in Scott’s case, his life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us live and work in a world filled with chaos and turbulence. Our customers feel it, our suppliers know it and our competitors are coping with it as well. As Collins and Hansen suggest in Great by Choice: “It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

While, “Be like Amundsen” doesn’t have that commercial jingle sound to it, we will all be better off if we incorporate this explorer’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into our personal and professional endeavors.

Another great resource on this topic: Race to the End by Ross D. E. MacPhee (hardcover only…a beautiful collector’s book.)

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.