In the very first episode of Project Management Paradise, Johnny Beirne speaks with Fergus O’Connell about how to manage the impossible project.

Fergus has over 20 years’ experience in Project Management and has written 5 books on the subject. He runs his own training and consulting company ETP and has trained 100’s of people including the organisers of the Special Olympics World Games on his simple and effective 10 step method.

Interview Excerpts

Johnny: The book we’re going to focus on today or the topic is “How to manage the impossible project” There’s some specific great material in the book Leadership lessons from the Race to the South Pole.  Can you tell us a little bit of background of where the inspiration came for that one?

Fergus: The Race to be First at the South Pole in 1912 between Scott and Amundsen is a reasonably well known story. From the point of view of a management case study it is really quite extraordinary and quite unique because you have one project – exactly the same project being carried out by two separate teams. One is the Norwegian Team led by Amundsen, is spectacularly successful.  They get to the South Pole first and they get back safely. And then the other team – the British Team led by Robert Scott, they get there second obviously and they all die on the return journey.  So you have one team spectacularly successful – the other team a dismal failure. And what’s even more interesting is that both projects are documented.  Amundsen wrote a book when he came back from the South Pole – called the South Pole.  After his death Scotts’ Diaries were found. So we have an account of the details of both projects. We can learn astonishing things from how each of them went about it. And how their efforts were so different and why one succeeded so well and why the other went so badly wrong. In fact a lot of the learning has gone into my message in the ‘Ten Steps’.

Focus and attention to detail

Johnny: Are there one or two contrasting things that they did that you could point to?

Fergus: There are quite a few. But there are two very obvious areas.

The first is ‘focus’. Amundsen had just one goal – he wanted to get to the South Pole and he wanted to get his people back safely. That second part of the goal ‘get the people back safely’ – he was as conscious of that as much as he was about getting to the South Pole. So he had a very clearly defined goal.  Now Scott by comparison wanted to get to the Pole. But he also was leading a scientific expedition. He had scientists on his expedition who were going to study the weather, they were going to study geology, they were going to study the wild life and all kinds of things. So Scott’s goal was much more diffused and much more unclear. Once he had a ridiculous situation. He was returning from the Pole and he was starting to get into very serious trouble because his people were weakening. They had scurvy and they didn’t have enough food. In this situation he stopped to collect rocks as geological samples! This was at a time when one of his people especially was very seriously ill. And if you look at that from Amundsen’s point of view – he would have regarded it as outrageous – bordering on criminal negligence.  But from Scott’s point of view it made complete sense given the kind of fluffy nature of his goals.  So focus is one thing.

The second thing is just ‘attention to detail’. One of the things that strikes you constantly when you read Amundsen’s book is the meticulous care he took in everything. In the equipment he was going to use, in the planning and everything. And Scott was much less competent in terms of his planning.

I think a lot of success or failure of a project is down to those two things ‘Focus’ and ‘Attention to detail’ really. Clearly defining the goals and then figuring out how best – as in how accurately and with as much detail as you can – what can be done to achieve the goal.