By Dominic Ooko, [email protected]
The basic rule for most organizations nowadays is to put a few top people in a room to brainstorm or find a solution to a problem or develop a product. Usually, the tone has been set at the top and it would take a lot of courage to deliver a contrary verdict on its viability. This approach tragically leads to sloppiness in testing the feasibility of the product or solution on its acceptance and value to the customers. Generally, it’s not easy to predict what’s most valuable to customers in the future, but the cost of groping in the dark maybe suicidal to the organization. This lesson is learned from Roald Amundsen’s book the Last Place on Earth that chronicled his conquest of the South Pole.
Twelve days before embarking on the expedition, on Friday, September 8th, 1911, the Norwegians led by Amundsen left Framheim heading south in pursuit of the South Pole. By Monday, less than 40 miles out of the base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, the thermometer sank to minus 60 degrees. The winds were gusting up to 100 miles per hour and the men had to build Inuit-style igloos to keep out the storm.
The next day, the liquid in the compasses froze solid. The men were completely exhausted, and after 12 continuous hours of merciless struggle against the cold and wind, all the men arrived back safely to their base camp. Five of the sledge dogs had died and most of the men were blistered and frostbitten. The next morning, most of the men agreed that the whole idea of starting so early for the Pole had been a mistake.
The retreat had exposed critical weaknesses in their equipment and these were subsequently corrected in readiness for their actual conquest of the South Pole 12 days later, delivering the ultimate defeat of the British team by arriving 34 days earlier on December 14th, 1912. In tragic contrast, the Amundsen expedition team of 19 men all made it to South Pole and returned safely to Norway, while the British team led by Naval captain Robert Falcon Scott lost 5 men out of a team of 65 men including the expedition leader himself! For no apparent reason, the final British 5 man team arrived in South Pole hauling 14kg of rock samples for geological souvenirs but without food rations for the long way back nearly 300 miles to the nearest food and fuel station. They all perished. Had they had equivalent weight of sea seals they would
This experience from the Last Place on Earth suggests that an entity should be prepared to undertake thorough testing of its product or solution and not be afraid to quit a project albeit in the interim.
Richard Dawkin called it the Concorde fallacy where the stakeholders perceive the sunk cost as too expensive to abandon, after the Concorde plane promoted by the British and French governments despite
knowledge that it was not economically viable.
An entity should readily undertake a self-internal reflection on the viability of a project and not be afraid to quit or pause. It’s a fact that most times there’s no sufficient evidence to deliver the contrary view of quitting and indeed there’s no magic bullet. The proposed solution is that management needs to think differently, a bit more, including considering a temporary setback or retreat.