One Great SHAG. Two Utterly Contrasting Outcomes – March 27th 2012

In deference to my Mother, who scours every screed I write, and to those of you reading my blog for the first time, let me hasten to clarify the precise meaning of the word SHAG. A SHAG is an acronym for a Smácht Hairy Audacious Goal – and everyone of you should have at least one of them before breakfast each morning.

Almost exactly a century ago two men shared a SHAG of gargantuan proportions. Both possessed a mission to become the first humans to travel to the South Pole. For one, it would be a journey to victory and a triumphant and safe return home. For the other, it would be a humiliating defeat of some 34 days culminating after in the subsequent death of all five members of the final expedition team.

Both men were of similar age and experience – 39 and 43. Both began the 1400 mile round trip at the same time. Both faced the same horrendous conditions of sub 40 degree Celsius temperatures compounded by a vicious wind-chill factor perpetuated by storm-force winds. Both had no recourse to any modern appliances of communications such as mobile phones, GPS’, radios or satellite links.

The implications were starkly apparent –  perform or perish. The epic stories of Roald Amundsen a Norwegian, and Robert Falcon Scott, an Englishman, and their contrasting fortunes are massively instructive to all of us who seek to conquer new business vista’s in what is frequently an inhospitable and unforgiving business climate. What were the characteristics that distinguished the careers of these two pioneering leaders.

1. PREPARATION:

Malcolm Gladwell posited in his wonderful book ‘The Tipping Point’ that it takes 10,000 hours – an average of 1000 hours a year – to master any discipline. Coincidentally, Amundsen began his preparation for his expedition to the South Pole in 1899, a full 12 years prior to his departure. Although coming from a strong maritime tradition he was aware that the Spaniards ran the best master’s sailing certificate in the world. He resolved to go to Spain – a journey of some 2000 miles – to complete the two month course. Back in 1899 there was no Scandinavian Airlines or Ryan Air or Aer Arann. So how did he get there?

He cycled.

And when he got there he learned how to navigate and he learned how to assess land formations and he experimented with eating raw dolphin meat. All this learning would prove invaluable many years later.

Not to put too fine a point on it dear readers, find the best training in the world, and pay any price to get to it.

2.  SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO’VE WALKED THE WALK:

Amundsen’s next phase of preparation was to apprentice himself with others who were adept at surviving and thriving in extenuating polar conditions. Who better to learn from than Eskimos who had generations of cumulative knowledge in precisely these conditions. Amundsen was a keen and receptive student.

He learned the perils of sweating for both man and beast in this climate. He observed that Eskimos rarely hurried as excessive perspiration can rapidly turn to ice in sub zero temperatures. He learned how to ski in an economical fashion that enabled him to sustain his energy over protracted time periods. Crucially, he reckoned that he would need to have top class cross country skiers on his team.

3.  MAKE DECISIONS ON SOUND EMPIRICAL INFORMATION.

Amundsen’s painstaking research enabled him to make better decisions than Scott. In the first instance, he selected dogs to transport the considerable weight of supplies. Scott choose horses and within days discovered that, unlike dogs, horses perspire on their hide and this constantly freezes. In fact Amundsen had planned on feeding weak dogs to the stronger dogs to eat if conditions had merited it. Horses do not eat meat. Scott also had wagered on using motorised vehicles for transport. Their engines cracked within days of departure meaning that almost from the get go Scott’s team were manhandling enormous weight across undulating terrain. Amundsen, influenced strongly by his experience with the Eskimos choose loose clothing to allow sweat to evaporate.

Amundsen also recruited the world’s finest cross country skier to accompany them on their journey.

Finally, due to his superior understanding of terrain, Amundsen had a 60 mile advantage over his opponent at the start.

4.  BUILD IN CONTINGENCIES TO PREEMT SETBACKS:

There was a massive disparity between how both men made provision for the trip. Amundsen placed black pennants, to contrast against the snow, on his supply depots and left clear markers every quarter of a mile to flag their return trip. Scott failed utterly to learn from Hansel and Grettle leaving only one flag on his primary depot.

Amundsen stored 3 tons of supplies for his team of 5. By contrast Scott had but 1 ton for a team of 17.

Even in terms of vital equipment Amundsen was vastly better prepared. Scott cursed his luck when a thermometer crucial to determining altitude broke. Amundsen critically, had in his possession 4 spares.

5.  MAKE HASTE SLOWLY:

On December 12th 2011, Amundsen noted in his log book ‘Going and surface as good as ever. Weather splendid – calm with sunshine’. What’s significant about this is that Amundsen was only 45 miles from his ultimate destination – the South Pole. At this stage he was unaware if Scott had

beaten him or not.

What would you have done in similar circumstances? The temptation would be to go all out and go for it. Not Amundsen. He travelled 17 miles that day. As Jim Collins noted in his excellent book ‘Great by Choice’ ‘Amundsen adhered to a regimen of consistent progress, never going too far in good weather, careful to stay far away from the red line of exhaustion that could leave his team exposed, yet pressing ahead in nasty weather to stay on pace’.

It’s interesting that Scott faced 6 days of gale-force weather and travelled on none. Amundsen, au contraire, was confronted by 15 days of such elements but succeeded in travelling on 8 of those. On one such inclement day, traversing a dangerous mountain pass he noted in his diary ‘It has been an unpleasant day – storm, drift and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal’.

On December 15th Amundsen unfurled the Norwegian flag on the South Pole having averaged 15.5 miles per day. What’s equally impressive is that he reached his base camp on January 25th 1912 in great shape and spirits – precisely the day he’d written in his plan.

In summarising the philosophy of Amundsen Jim Collins notes ‘You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance . You don’t wait until you’re shipwrecked to determine if you can eat raw dolphin. You don’t wait until you’re on the Antarctic Journey to become a superb skier and dog handler. You prepare with intensity, all the

time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength. And equally, you prepare so that when conditions turn in your favour, you can strike hard’.

There’s so much we can learn about business from the contrasting ways Amundsen and Scott prepared for their SHAG.

What great choices will you make this week?

You could begin by reading, and re-reading Jim Collins outstanding book, ‘Great by Choice’. It will be the prescribed reading on all Smácht seminars for April.

Make great choices.

Pádraic

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