Just over one hundred years ago in Antarctica, Robert Falcon Scott and his team died of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold just eleven miles from safety, while his rival Roald Amundsen and his team lived to enjoy fame from their successful expedition. Scott and Amundsen were racing for the South Pole; both made it, but only one team made it home alive. What made the difference between these expeditions and why does it matter?
It matters because we see direct parallels between historic expeditions and large, business transformation projects. Is this a stretch? Consider this:
According to Wikipedia, Expeditions are defined as "a long journey or voyage undertaken for a specific purpose". Typically, a group of sponsors commit to a journey and select a leader. The leader typically recruits and selects his or her team based on the required skills and experience. Teams are often augmented by local guides to show the way and do some of the heavy lifting. Routes are planned. Supplies are prepared and rationed. Successes are typically heralded in the short term while failures live on in history. Doesn't that sound a little like a large IT project to you?
If we look at the Scott/Amundsen story through the lens of how we assess projects today, how would they rate? In our experience, what matters most for success in transformational projects can be captured in five dimensions:
1) Goals are clearly defined
2) Sponsorship is committed and Governance is clear
3) Risks are anticipated and managed
4) Team is engaged and suited for the task
5) Plans are clear and realistic
1) Goals are clearly defined: Amundsen had a single clear goal for his team: to be the first to reach the South Pole. The Scott Expedition had two goals: 1) to reach the pole, and 2) to gather scientific research along the way. As evidence, the Scott team took over 2,000 photographs along the way while the Amundsen team took ten...all at the pole. The evidence suggests that the serving the two goals was a major factor in Scott's death.
2) Sponsorship is committed and Governance is clear: Amundsen expeditions was funded exclusively by the Norwegian government with no evidence of interference with Amundsen's plans. Scott had multiple stakeholders including the British government, private industry providing supplies, his ship builder, and the Geographical Royal Society. With Scott's expedition there was great promotion and fanfare. While Scott basked in the glory of the press and public as he prepared for the trip, Amundsen quietly went about his preparations without fanfare, nor conflicting direction between his stakeholders.
3) Risks are anticipated and managed: Amundsen researched extensively, including living with Inuit people in Northern Canada. His experience led to the selection of dogs and suitable clothing that allowed body heat to be released. Amundsen selected simple solutions over complex, recognizing that in the harsh climate his men would be less able to deal with complexity. He is quoted to have said "Victory awaits him who has everything in order - luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him that has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck".
Scott left room for only a thin margin of error. He did not plan for the worst and suffered the consequences.
4) Team is engaged and suited for the task. Amundsen hired exclusively for skills relevant to the journey. For example, Amundsen decided early that skiing would be a preferred mode of transportation. He recruited an expert skier to lead the team and made ski training mandatory for all members of the group.
Scott also planned to ski, but did not have a expert skier on the team, nor did he make training mandatory. Scott's team was made up "primarily of friends, hang-arounders with a taste for adventure and strictly speaking, non relevant people like photographers".
5) Plans are clear and realistic: Amundsen questioned conventional thinking, studied possible routes and decided on a new route, 60 miles shorter; it was a risk, but a well studied and thought through plan. His team marched less time per day than Scott's but sometimes covered twice as much distance. The selection of experienced sleigh dogs was a major factor in their success as was travelling at night to avoid blindness. In contrast, the Scott expedition selected ponies not suited for travel in the snow, and motor sledges that had never been tested in Antarctica. Despite travelling a well known route (a route on which Scott himself had failed eight years previously), Scott did not have a plan for success, nor a contingency plan in the event of the unforeseen. He and his men died in the cold a few miles from food and safety as they waited out a blizzard.
The Scott/Amundsen story is one I heard as a child. It struck with me because we share the name Robert Scott, but upon re-reading the story today it strikes me how much project sponsors, board members, project managers and their teams can learn from history.
Robert Scott & Spencer Sweazey