Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ernest Shackleton's Polar Expedition

Endurance, cutting through the ice on sail and steam engine
A lot has been said about Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition, especially within Project Management circles. Most of the dialogue centers around his decision to change the goal from crossing Antarctica to saving the lives of his entire crew. Since he's back in the news again as his 100 year anniversary nears, I thought I'd add my take on the story.

For those who don't know the story, back in 1914, there were still some difficult places to reach on earth and explorers willing to expend large amounts of money, time and lives on being the first person to reach these places. Ernest Shackleton was part of Scott's 1901, failed expedition to the south pole, not the 1911 one that cost Scott his life and the life of his crew.
Ice mountains formed by moving pack ice

After Amundson reached the pole, Shackleton decided to explore Antarctica by crossing the continent on dog-sleds from one side to another. (Was this the inspiration for 'Ripping Yarns' Crossing the Andes on frog?)
He gathered a crew and set off, leaving civilization, as it were, on South Georgia island where the locals warned him that ice pack made his expedition impossible. They warned him to wait until the pack melted in a few months. He ignored the local knowledge and pushed on, his ship becoming trapped in the ice one day from his destination.

Realizing he was not going to achieve his initial goal of crossing Antarctica on dog-sled, he changed the project's goal to ensuring that every member of his expedition survived the ordeal. (A pretty lofty goal in those days when losing half your expedition crew was commonplace. This is still true on many Everest expeditions)

He proved himself an excellent leader for this second goal. He worked on his men's warmth, shelter, comfort and mental health. He organized a sail on lifeboats to the nearest land mass, Elephant Island, before the ice all melted. He organized a rescue mission, sailing over open Antarctic water to South Georgia island, (a ship voyage considered by many to be the most impressive in the entire history of sailing).

He climbed for 36 hours across to the inhabited side of this island, then sent a vessel to rescue his remaining crew on Elephant island. All but the animals survived.

Read the details here:

But let's look at the entire project from a good project management perspective:
Idea Phase: Good job, getting backing and getting people excited to join. He even acquired a stowaway with his enthusiasm. Grade A
Planning Phase: Filled the ship with valuable supplies that ended up saving their lives. Probably missed some key information that could have been supplied by Norwegian whalers. Things like: When does the pack-ice form? How thick is it? How much pressure does it exert? Grade D
Early Execution Phase: Completely ignored valuable information from people with knowledge who warned him not to attempt what he was doing at the time. Didn't keep pressing forward with his steam engine and allowed the ship to become completely trapped. Grade F
Rethinking Phase: Changed the Project Objective on his own. Normally a huge no-no but given that he had no way of communicating with the stakeholders who have this authority, he took it on himself to change the objective to what he thought was right at the time. (It's what the team thought was right as well and he was vindicated on return for making the right decision) Grade A
Replanning Phase: Knew that the ice would destroy his ship so he set up camp on the ice in such a way to survive the winter. Grade A
Early Execution Phase: Ensured that morale stayed high by giving the best supplies to the lowest ranked members of the expedition. Encouraged work, hunting parties, diversions to make it through the three months of darkness. Got the men safely to dry land before the ice melted. Grade A
Middle Execution Phase: Organized the rescue mission. Put the best sailors on the rescue ship and led it himself. Placed a competent leader in charge of those left behind. Endured personal hardship in the hike across South Georgia Island. Grade A
Late Execution Phase: Focused on the goal of rescuing the remainder of his expedition until it succeeded. Grade A
Closing Phase: Gave out rewards to some of his men but not to others, sometimes for minor infractions during the almost two-year ordeal. Grade C
Overall Grade B
Better planning would have brought him up to an A and remember, 90% of Project Management is communication and most of that is listening.


  1. This already excellent post gets bonus points for a "Ripping Yarns" reference. You should check out "Dinosaurs in the Attic". It's kind of a history of the AMNH, the first half is a big pile of both well and poorly planned out endeavors.

  2. Thanks Jeff. That 'Crossing the Andes on frog' always cracks me up. I'll do what you suggest and check out 'Dinosaurs in the Attic.' Sounds like great fodder for this blog and maybe some more pictures for my failed projects flash.

  3. Plus, what made this post especially poignant to me was that I read the original 'Ripping Yarn' of the true story of this expedition when I was a young boy. My father was a collector of these old adventure stories and brought them with him to Australia. I found it while working my way through his library as a child. I'm quite certain that this very book was the inspiration for Michael Palin's 'Crossing the Andes on frog.'