In 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, prominent explorers in the heroic age of Antarctic expedition were in a much publicized race to reach the South Pole. The world watched as two teams led faced some of the most difficult natural conditions including temperatures as low as -82.8°C. For various motivations, each wanted to get there first, to win for country, to be the first man to conquer the South Pole.
As we have in the world of business today, many risks were taken, sacrifices endured in a bid to make good their promise to investors who had been sold the idea that the impossible could be achieved. There is the idea that humanity can, against all odds beat the circumstances, however challenging they might be and in the South Pole expedition, each team wanted prove this by being the first to cross the finish line.
At the beginning, each team wanted to win and was ready to put in the requisite effort. There had to be sufficient planning for the expedition else neither would make it back alive. There were comparisons as to who was the better leader, who was going to make it first and, per a Harvard Business Review article, who had better prior experience. In retrospect we know how both men ended their quest. Roald Amundsen made it first. Robert Falcon Scott didn’t.
Historians agree that Roald used a better tested strategy combining focus on a singular objective (to get to the south pole first), the right tools, well-bred dogs and well-suited hands with rations painstakingly planned ahead of the trip. It is also said that he used tools and hands more familiar with him and also with expeditions of this kind. And after he won, it was on to the next challenge.
Robert Falcon Scott by some accounts is said to have underestimated the enormity of the task, had a much wider scope for the expedition (including picking up rocks for scientific research) and didn’t research in sufficient detail what it would take to succeed. This led to needless suffering over an extended period of time, and the eventual loss of his life and those who he led. From this we see that it is useful to have a healthy respect for the challenges of the journey to the goals we have set.
Whether it’s working to create that killer app, closing a key sale or building a winning team. This healthy respect ensures more thorough preparation to fight longer and will assist in avoiding presumptuous errors that prematurely end otherwise promising endeavours.
But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it?
There will be the need to redesign products – not only because the first versions of a product or service tend to need updates, but also because customer needs are ever changing. There will be unreasonable demands from the customer sometimes (some would argue most times, depending on the industry), the delivery of parts might not always be on time and the competition won’t sit on its hands while they lose market share.
These challenges, if expected and carefully prepared for would not catch the team off guard. In his book, The First Mile, Scott D Anthony analyses what innovators can reasonably expect as they try to go to market with a new product, and how to consistently succeed with a new idea. Seasoned business leaders know that the customer is no fool and always has reasons for every decision, however illogical or otherwise they may be.
It is also important to develop an ability to carefully navigate the pitfalls that end many ideas even as viable alternatives remain in the cooler. That is; if plan A doesn’t pan out, there should be a plan B and if that doesn’t work out, then a plan C should be in place.
Entrepreneur: someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down.
Sir Richard Branson
Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.
There is the conversation in many organisations by individuals genuinely interested in making things better and changing things by benchmarking with some better performing organisation, amongst other growth strategies. So meetings are held, the latest research is shared and competitor information is discussed and analysed extensively. When a new direction as a result of the aforementioned, we face the inevitable – the need to embrace risk and come to terms with the facts that our ideas might not work and the customer might reject yet another concerted attempt to improve their lives.
It helps when an innovator is prepared for a wide range of eventualities and a demonstrated ability to navigate complexity makes innovators stand out. Not just getting the great idea (a feat in itself) but the ability to dance with a quick succession of tunes, getting back on one’s feet when knocked down.
The risk always the risk of failure, the risk of loss but also the risk, yes, of being highly regarded by the leading voices of the day and the consequent increase in level of expectation (which should) drive for further achievement.
And so we are sometimes tempted to take the easier option of not speaking up, not looking objectively at the system for necessary changes all leading to a life of tagging along, following the market without thinking “is there a better way”. In the end, systems that do the hard work of following an idea through from start to finish will win. They might make mistakes, but they will win.
I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In the end, Amundsen would go on to disappear in a rescue mission and was never found. After conquering the South Pole, what else is there to do, other than to sit back and attempt challenges of comparatively lesser difficulty? Thing is, what many know but don’t say is that after a while, chasing the idea of achieving the impossible becomes who you are, even as it leads one to embrace the increasing possibilities of loss.
Ideas edge us on, taking us over the edge (if allowed), getting us to go beyond the limits – so that the world can go farther still. Chasing the idea is ultimately what stands a leader out from the crowd where many have decided to play it safe (and maybe justifiably so), or have tried, failed, and for the most part have refused to try again.
But then, are there not better ways to live?