Lessons on project management from a polar Explorer

Lessons on project management from a polar Explorer

While my colleague Marja uses her blog to discuss our company’s core business operations in connection to Business Process Management, here I focus on somewhat ‘lighter topics.’ As I approach life an adventure, I have seized every possible opportunity to listen to leading thinkers in business. Fortunately, I have taken extensive notes during these happenings and I’d like to share with you, my blog readers, these titbits of learning I have acquired along the way in an easy-going way with examples.

In 2014, I had the good fortune to hear Jim Collins lecturing at Nordic Business Forum. Collins, who has sold over 10 million books worldwide, is perhaps best known for his work Good to Great (2001). The theme of Collins’s talk was what makes a great company. Collins has studied successful companies for decades, so he has vast amounts of raw data, which he has analysed to obtain his results. He says that upon examining his data he has found a remarkable difference between successful and unsuccessful companies. According to Collins, it is often possible to find two very similar companies with almost identical starting points that operate in almost identical business environments. Yet one fails and the other flourishes. Collins offered his audience an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott both decided to become the first people to reach the South Pole. These two polar explorers prepared to make separate expeditions to the South Pole. Both expeditions started off in 1910 Amundsen’s and Scott’s teams made their expeditions in comparable circumstances and in similar environmental conditions, yet Amundsen’s expedition succeeded while Scott’s ended in failure.

Although Amundsen’s and Scott’s expeditions took slightly different routes to reach the South Pole, for the most part both parties approached it from the same direction. Scott had chosen to use horses as draft animals to haul their supplies whereas Amundsen, who had prepared for the adventure by spending time with Eskimos, had decided to use dog teams. Scott and his men progressed according to weather conditions. On good days, he may have travelled 40 miles and pushed his team to utter exhaustion, whereas on bad days they may not have even set foot out of their camp. Amundsen had budgeted their daily trek at 20 miles per day. No matter the weather.

So what happened to the men?

While the horses chosen by Scott froze to death, forcing the men to haul the heavy sledges themselves, Amundsen’s dog teams fared well in the cold. If any of the dogs died, the other dogs fed on the dead animal’s remains. Scott’s weather-dependent pace backfired in the long run and he arrived at the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had already reached it before him. The daily trek of 20 miles was a far better way to advance than going as far as possible in good weather and then resting in inclement weather. Amundsen returned from his expedition victorious without losing a single member of the expedition. Every member of Scott’s team starved and froze to death on the journey back, the last of them only 11 miles away from away from the depot.


A member of Amundsen’s expedition, Olav Bjaaland, with the dog team at the South Pole. Source: National Library of Norway.

Amundsen’s 20-Mile March method can also be applied in a company operating in a turbulent environment. Amundsen had no control over the environmental conditions, so he had to place his trust in the following principles:

  1. Fanatical discipline. The men stuck to their daily trek of 20 miles regardless of the conditions. Time is an important resource. Amundsen budgeted this limited resource. Also in business, it is good to have realistic expectations and not believe you can get ahead by working in spurts. Budget your time and stick to your budget.
  2. Empirical creativity. Amundsen learned how to cope with extreme cold from people who lived in cold climates, using this information to his advantage when planning his trip. Why reinvent the wheel when the knowhow you need is most probably available from experts in the field?
  3. Productive paranoia. Amundsen had prepared for any possible scenario in an almost paranoid fashion. This meant that he and his men never faced a situation where food or fuel resources were about to run out. From a business point of view, this preparation for all possible variables would mean budgeting extra money for the unexpected.

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