(Co-authored with Andy Boynton)
The great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s historic “dash” on skis and dog sledges to the South Pole in 1911, beating the more methodical trudge by Captain Robert Scott’s expedition by a month, was a classic example of using knowledge to build a smarter project team.
With an eye to Polar exploration, Amundsen had for years been learning everything he could from everyone he could: from Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen, for instance, who pioneered the use of lean, fast-moving teams; from whaling and sealing skippers; and from the often overlooked Greenland Inuits.
Amundsen had also gained personal experience by trying his hand at commanding an expedition that discovered the North West Passage. And when his objective switched from the North Pole to the South Pole, he closely studied the lessons to be learned from Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt as well.
A TEAM OF VIRTUOSOS
Amundsen above all learned to be on top of every detail critical to the success or failure of an expedition. Yet he never told his team members how to do their jobs, an error frequently made by many of today’s team leaders. Instead, for his Antarctic expedition he picked only the best – for their specialist, practical skills, not their team-playing attitude. Then he put them in a position to actually excel at their individual competencies, all within a team context.
From this early example of what we call a “virtuoso team”, Amundsen earned absolute loyalty. He communicated a simple, clear vision: be first. And through close discussion, he inspired each of them so they strove to ensure that in their own part of the enterprise everything was done to maximise the chances of success.
Significantly, on the dash to the Pole, Amundsen positioned himself not at the front but at the rear, where he had a better overview of how the team was performing and could better race up and down the line to confront and fix problems without slowing the momentum.
Although he did make occasional mistakes, his men felt a strong trust and affection for him because of his leadership style. His attention to detail also ensured that the team had a large margin for error in supply depots stocked with far more than they hoped they would need.
The real test of a well-managed project comes in adapting to new circumstances. Here is where having a great team, knowing more and fully utilizing that knowledge make such a big difference. Amundsen was able to shift objectives from the North to South Pole, relied on a much smaller team, was able to traverse a formidable mountain range, and still was able to do all of this faster than his better-equipped rival.
What Amundsen’s story shows us is that knowledge and trust not only give you a tactical advantage, they also build the confidence and commitment that a great team needs to move forward.
This article first appeared in the September 2005 issue of British Airline’s BUSINESS LIFE magazine.