04.09 20120

One Small Step

We live in a world where we continually balance exploration and risk.  From the very first steps of a toddler to the very first steps of man on the moon, we risk failure to achieve the absolute joy of accomplishing what has never been done before.  In the book Risk and Exploration, published by the NASA History Division, the assertion is made that exploration is necessary for a creative society and that risk is the inevitable companion of exploration.

French historian and novelist, Andre Malraux, stated “Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk and to act.”  Progress can only be made if we continue to move forward and take the risks that lead to advancements of our society.  The question is not should we take risks but how should we manage the risks that we will take. A great way to understand best practices related to risk management is to look at the lessons learned that history provides us.

At the August PMI dinner meeting for the Dallas chapter, Rick Brenner, of Chaco Canyon Consulting, presented an interesting topic in regards to risk management.  He contrasted two of the first expeditions to the South Pole to offer examples of how to manage risks in our modern-day projects. Brenner pointed out that comparing similar historical events provides insights that are difficult to gain elsewhere and allows us to take away points to apply to current situations.  Looking at a historical case allows us to take more time and be more objective in our assessments of the situation.

The two expeditions, one English and the other Norwegian, both set out to reach the South Pole in early 1900s with similar technology and information available to each team.  The use of this information and technology and each team’s approach to risk management was greatly different, leading to vastly different outcomes.  The expedition from England used conventional methods and the one from Norway used risk management techniques.  The study shows that the value of conventional wisdom rapidly declines as you move into the unknown.  The larger and riskier the project, the more important is risk management and the less important is conventional wisdom.

The English expedition heavily relied on traditions and conventional practices. The English ship was overloaded and overcrowded; the large number of men required a large amount of supplies.  The ship was an old vessel, not intended for locked ice, creating issues in the icy seas near the Pole.  Once on land as was the English tradition, the group used manpower instead of dogs to haul the overburdened sledges, thus needlessly tiring the men. The English used only one navigator and ignored the need to overhaul the distance measurement tool that was ineffective in snowdrifts, creating issues with navigational reliance.   The English traveled by day both directions, facing snow blindness on the return trip.  The English failed to properly delegate tasks, instead leading through authority, and failed to balance the workloads.  These errors led the English to depot their supplies too soon on the trip to the Pole, and they could not make it back to their supply depot in time on their return trip.  All men on the expedition perished.  Death is a high price to pay for clinging to conventions and ignoring local situations.

In contrast, the Norwegian group consisted of a much leaner group of men and sledges.  Rather than fatiguing the men, dogs hauled the sledges.  The Norwegians chose appropriate tools for the job.  The Norwegian ship was purpose-built for the expedition in icy waters.  The Norwegians used 4 navigators, offering redundancy for computational reliability.  Realizing that the measurement tool was impacted by drift snow, the Norwegians overhauled the design before the trip.  On the return trip, the Norwegians traveled by night to avoid snow blindness and to make the trip easier on the group.  The Norwegians mastered the art of delegation, making everyone feel that their work was essential and led through loyalty.  The leader let everyone be independent within his own sphere and balanced workloads.  The Norwegians successfully returned to Norway from the South Pole.

Brenner’s case study illustrates how important it is to consider local situations when engaged in a risky undertaking.  The riskier the undertaking, the less we should rely on conservative conventions to see us through to success.  The case also underlies the importance of selecting appropriate tools for the situation, working smarter, not harder.  Utilizing a load balanced team, led through loyalty verses authority also leads to better outcomes.  These South Pole expeditions underscore how assessing local situations can benefit projects and how blindly following traditional practices can lead to peril.  In modern day terms, we would call this “leading with agility.”  One step at a time we can engage risk and follow a path to unprecedented success.

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