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South Pole Expeditions, Sacred Cows, and Dismounting Dead Horses

Posted by Parham, SPHR, Eddy at Wednesday, 07/11/2012 2:31 pm
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2.6 from 34 votes
By Eddy Parham, OD Guy

Question - What are the 7 last words of a dying organization?

Have you ever stopped and wondered why some organizations insist on carrying out their Grand Plan regardless of the cost and effort? It seems that sometimes we are afraid to take sacred cows and make gourmet hamburger out of them. For some reason, we are afraid to admit that our idea or plan, while it looks very attractive on paper or it has worked just fine for quite some time, is now doomed and needs to either be scraped or reworked entirely. I was reminded of this recently while reading the story of Robert Falcon Scott, a British Naval Officer and Explorer.

Scott, who had previously done some exploring in the Antarctic area, was in a race against the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole. Amundsen had paid attention to detail and planed his expedition very carefully equipping his people with the very best equipment. He laid out his supplies along the route so that his men would not have to carry all of their supplies with them. Amundsen had studied the Eskimos and other experienced Arctic travelers to determine the best course of action to use in an attempt to be the first person to reach the South Pole.

Scott, on the other hand, hadn't given the attention to details that he should have. His team's equipment was poorly designed. Just five days into the trip the motorized sledges that were being used to carry their gear stopped working. The horses that were being used to haul additional supplies didn't fare well in the frigid temperatures and had to be killed. But Scott pressed on. As a result of the first equipment failures, his team ended up hauling the two hundred pound sledges. The team's clothing was poorly designed and all of the men developed frostbite. But Scott pressed on. Everyone became snow-blind because of inadequate goggles, but Scott pressed on. The team was low on food and water and became dehydrated because of Scott's poor planning, but - you guessed it - Scott didn't turn around. Finally after covering a grueling eight hundred miles in ten weeks, Scott's exhausted group arrived at the South Pole only to find the Norwegian flag flapping in the breeze and a letter from Amundsen written more than a month earlier.

This story unfortunately gets worse. Now, because of Scott's refusal to rethink his plans in the beginning, all of the men were starving and suffering from scurvy. But Scott was oblivious to the situation that he and his men were in. Desperately low on food and with time running out for them, Scott insisted that the team collect thirty pounds of geological specimens to take back - more weight to be carried by the already worn out and starving men. One by one, Scott and his crew (5 total) died trying to get back to their base camp. The closest they came was 150 miles. Before Scott died, he spent his last hours writing in his diary.

What a shame. If Scott would have had the foresight to plan better, or just had the common sense to see that his plan was not working out and that he needed a new one, chances are that he and his men would have survived. Unfortunately, Scott is not the only one to make this type of mistake.

Organizations make the same mistake everyday by refusing to give up on projects, programs, and policies that are either doomed, no longer fit the needs of the organization, or are no longer in the best interest of the organization. The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians says that when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. I'm not a Dakota Indian, but it seems that they certainly have the right perspective.

We're all guilty of trying to ride a dead horse at times. We commit a significant amount of money and energy to a project only to find that our efforts are in vain. And some of the time, we’ve been riding the dead horse for so long we don’t realize that it is dead. Just like Robert Scott, we find it difficult to dismount, cut our losses, and move on. Instead, we continue to pour more and more of our money and resources into the doomed project, all the while taking money and resources away from projects or activities that are more beneficial.

Answer to the opening question - But we've always done it this way.

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