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 suggestions 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. Most of the time we’re 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.
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