Business today is so unpredictable. The economists it seems can never get it right. The only thing certain in 2012 is the continued volatility across the business cycle as a whole. The only constant underlying message is that growth will be modest, and you’re going to have to work very hard for it.
If nothing in business is predictable, how therefore do you mitigate the unknown? How do you thrive in uncertainty when you don’t know what kind of obstacles will be thrown in your path? You’ve probably heard it a hundred times before: “it all comes down to good planning.” But what does that even mean? Well, let me tell you a story…
In 1911 two adventurers were planning their separate quest to reach that pinnacle as yet unconquered: The South Pole.
Roald Amundsen’s expedition arrived at the eastern edge of the Ross Ice at a large inlet called the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911. Leading up to that point Amundsen had tried his best to prepare for the journey. He lived for a time with Eskimos, learning how it is that they survive on the ice, even opting to give up the usual heavy wool clothing in favour of Eskimo-style skins which were looser fitting and he watched and learnt how they used dogs to pull sleds. Dogs, he thought, ate meat, and therefore he would have a fresh supply of seal with which to feed them.
Their ski boots, specifically designed by Amundsen, were the product of two years testing and modification. He poured over other explorers historical reports of the area, analyzing and studying and making his decisions based on what indicated were his best chance of success. It was a path previously unproven.
By early February he had started to lay his supply depots at regular intervals on their projected route. This became a practice run too in their bid for the Pole, to test out his boots and his clothing and his dogs. He laid three tons of supplies for five men, and marked each depot with a line of bamboo flags laid out transversely every half mile for five miles either side in case he missed it in a storm. This enabled him to travel on ‘bad’ days, knowing he could still hit his target. And he made some modifications too, to ensure everything ran smoothly when they finally went for the big push.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, by contrast, landed 320km to Amundsen’s west, only had one ton of supplies for his men and he marked them with a single flag. Where Amundsen laid seven depots, Scott laid only two. The greater distance between his depots and lack of route marking meant he couldn’t travel in bad weather, forcing him to stay huddled in his tent consuming his ever diminishing rations while he complained of bad luck.
Scott also used ponies instead of dogs (nine of which were lost before the journey even began). Ponies don’t eat meat, which meant he had to carry their food with him. He also took three new motorized sleds, but chose to leave behind the engineer who had created and trialed them and they failed relatively early due to faults, with no one to fix them.
Both ponies and motors proved to be useless and Scott and his team found themselves having to man-haul their sleds across the ice, and as a result the food they brought contained only half the calories required to do this. They had skis, but they were untrained in their use. “Skis,” Scott said, “are the thing, and here are my tiresome fellow countrymen too prejudiced to have prepared themselves for the event.” Amundsen on the other hand, had recruited a team of experienced skiers. Where Scott had only one navigator per team, Amundsen had four. Not only that, Scott dismissed requests for navigational training before the journey even began.
Scott also had the problem of a shortage of fuel from leakage. This was a well known problem that had occurred on previous expeditions, but Scott chose to ignore it. Amundsen on the other hand, had learnt from the failures of others and had his fuel cans soldered shut. As a result, Scott ran low on fuel and was unable to melt enough water, and with his team man-hauling the sledges due to the failure of horses and untried motors, they suffered from dehydration and exhaustion.
Despite all of this, Scott was charting the same route that Shackleton had taken previously until 88⁰ 23’ S. He had therefore, a decent account of the route and should have been able to mitigate the known problems they might face.
Amundsen’s route on the other hand, was totally unknown. He had no idea what lay before him. He could not know the elevation he would get to or the sturdiness of the ice. He didn’t know if his path was blocked by insurmountable crevices or mountains. But he was thoroughly prepared for any eventuality should it arise, even if out of his control.
Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole on the 14th December 1911, 34 full days ahead of Scott and returned to home base on the 25th of January the following year with zero causalities.
Scott, well…you know what happened to him? He and his team died on the return journey only 18km short of his supply depot. What if Scott had laid more supply depots like Amundsen? What if he had marked them clearly so to travel in poor weather? What if he had only chosen dogs instead of ponies? What if, what if, what if. It’s too late for ‘what ifs,’ Scott had perished.
Amundsen said afterwards of his journey to the South Pole: “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.”
So how can you create your own ‘luck’ in business?
1/ Prepare for contingencies. You don’t know what’s ahead so prepare prepare prepare. Make sure you have enough in your supply depot. How much working capital do you have if an unforeseen disaster struck and is it enough to help you pay every debt and still have some leftover?
2/ Know the math. What happens if your business hits an obstacle? Scott planned predominantly on the use of horses and mechanized sleds and only carried enough food for the journey. But the horses failed and the sleds broke down and they had to haul the sledges by hand. He didn’t account for having enough food to cover the extra exertion this required.
3/ Don’t be afraid to change what doesn’t work. Don’t be like Scott, don’t flog a dead horse. Test your idea first with minimum risk before throwing yourself in boots and all. Amundsen tested his dogs and clothing and boots before he even got to the ice, and again when he was on it. Scott had no experience with horses until he was on his way to the Pole.
4/ Learn. If you don’t know something, learn it, or hire people who already have the knowledge. Amundsen recruited experienced skiers. Scott’s team were bad skiers. When it came down to it, skis were critical. Don’t get caught with inexperience when the life of your business is at stake.
5/ Be clear on your goal. Scott’s primary objective was the South Pole, but his financial backers saw it as having a scientific basis and therefore Scott spent a lot of energy surveying and dragging rock samples along with him. Amundsen’s expedition goal was to reach the South Pole. That was all. Nothing else mattered.
6/ Make sure everyone else is clear on your goal. Scott had outlined his plans for the push to the South Pole with his shore party without being specific about precise roles and he gave conflicting orders so that his subordinates were unsure of his intentions. Speak plainly, and make your intentions clear so everyone is headed in the same direction.
Top Pic: Amundsen studying. Bottom Pic: Scott and his team at the South Pole next to a tent left by Amundsen.
References include Living Adventures in Science, by Henry Thomas & Dana Lee Thomas. The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen. The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford. Scott’s Last Expedition, and Wikipedia. Wiki as a reference might not get you an A on your essay but surely it’s ok for a blog?! If you want every single point sited, le sigh, it can be done otherwise it’s all in the aforementioned references. Also check out Jim Collin’s book Great By Choice which makes great comparisons between the two in his theory on ’10Xers’.