The Race to the South Pole:
Ten Lessons for Project Managers

On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound.

Most of our learning about project management comes from personal experience, from the experiences of others, from texts and professional materials, and from presentations and training. The content of these sources is specifically about project management. This is what I call direct learning.

The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers

But there are other ways to learn about project management, ways I call indirect. One slightly surprising source of lessons about project management is film. Many films aren't directly about project management, and yet, indirectly, they have much to teach us. One of these is The Last Place on Earth. There are many more — for more examples, see "Films Not About Project Teams: I," Point Lookout for July 28, 2004.

I mention The Last Place on Earth because it's the story of the race to the South Pole, which occurred in the Antarctic summer of 1911-1912. The film is based on the book of the same title, by Roland Huntford. I recommend both.

In this program, we use the history of this event to explore ten important lessons about managing complex projects. From this story we can learn lessons about leadership, planning, scope creep, risk management, improvisation, discipline, organizational politics, team dynamics, technology management, and the importance of simplicity.

Attendees will learn valuable lessons from history that they can immediately apply to managing current projects and planning new projects. The drama of the story of Amundsen and Scott makes these lessons more intriguing, easier to learn, and much, much more memorable.

Program structure and content

Very engaging and insightful presentation. Loved the history blended neatly with exceptional wisdom for project managers and in fact, any risky endeavor. Would recommend it to anyone.
— Terence Fowler
Each of the ten lessons we examine is illustrated with background and stories from one or both of the two expeditions. The stories are memorable, and told with an emphasis on their value to project managers, sponsors, managers, and executives in project-oriented organizations.

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, breakout, or clinic. For the shorter formats, coverage of the outline below is selective.

Here's a concise summary of the ten lessons:

  1. Leadership: it matters most when the project is in trouble. When the leadership fails, not much else can succeed.
  2. Planning: Planning is the foundation of it all. Replanning is a dangerous fiction, because planning is never really finished.
  3. Scope creep: Maintaining focus requires constant vigilance. A single lapse can doom the entire effort.
  4. Risk management: Think of everything that can go wrong, and prepare for it. Then, you will still have missed something important.
  5. Improvisation: Improvisation is a useful skill, but relying on it as an alternative to planning is foolhardy.
  6. Discipline: Self-discipline and self-control are as important to the team as they are to the individual.
  7. Organizational politics: The owning organization always imposes tight constraints. Sometimes, they must be circumvented.
  8. Team dynamics: Multiple overlapping skill sets is a key to harmony.
  9. Technology management: Most reliable path to success: do something new with familiar technology. Least reliable: do something new with unfamiliar technology.
  10. Simplicity: venturing into the unknown with a complicated plan is a high-risk endeavor. Simplicity rules.

This program is most suitable for keynote presentations and conference general sessions, or for large groups. Heavily illustrated with maps and original photographs, the stories bring the events of 1908 through 1912 — just over 100 years ago — to life. It is especially suitable for audiences that desire some relief from the sometimes-dry style of presentations that address similar subject matter. Audience interaction and table discussions about accompanying prepared discussion questions bring the lessons of the Race to the Pole into focus in contemporary experience.

Program outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Amundsen and Scott: Background
    2. Antarctica as it was known in 1910
    3. The two expeditions compared
    4. Assessing our decision-making process
  2. The ten lessons in project management
    1. Leadership
    2. Planning
    3. Scope creep
    4. Risk management
    5. Improvisation
    6. Discipline
    7. Organizational politics
    8. Team dynamics
    9. Technology management
    10. Simplicity
  3. Summary and wrap-up
    1. How we can apply these lessons in modern projects
    2. What to do tomorrow
    3. Monitoring your own learning
    4. Resources for the future

Learning model

We usually think of project management skills as rather technical — free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite our most sincere beliefs, taking a project organization to the next level of performance does require learning to apply knowledge management skills even in situations of high emotional content. That's why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

Project managers, program managers, managers, executives, leaders, and project team members. Participants should have experienced at least six months working with or as a member of a project team.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to one full day. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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