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Project management lessons from the extreme cold

Line of Defence, Autumn 2017

Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica. Image courtesy of NASA.Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica. Image courtesy of NASA.


Book: Project Management, Denial and the Death Zone, Lessons from Everest and Antarctica

Author: Grant Avery MBA. PMP. 

Publisher: J. Ross Publishing. 

272 pages.  $91 from Unity Books, Wellington.

Reviewer: Carlton Ruffell


I’ve spent the last few years hip-deep in security project work for a major organisation. The projects were extremely varied but had to link up to create a cohesive whole that would keep the staff and users of the service safe.  During this time, I was fortunate enough to work with a talented and enthusiastic team, supported by a keen Project Management Office (PMO). 

Even with all these resources there were times when I’d wake up late at night worried, asking soul-searching questions like, “Am I addressing this problem in the right way?” and “Does this solution fit with the overall programme?” 

I also asked other, more esoteric questions that I didn’t think anyone else considered, yet I somehow knew had a big effect on what we were trying to achieve. Questions like:

  • Am I pursuing a solution out of hubris or do I fully understand the risk and how much risk I’m allowed to take?
  • Does the culture of the organisation support this, or are we effectively working in isolation?
  • When is the right time to ‘give up’ on an under-performing project, particularly when it’s one that programme sponsors are heavily invested in?

A member of the PMO team took me to see author Grant Avery talk about his new book “Project Management, Denial, and the Death Zone - Lessons from Everest and Antarctica”. They no doubt hoped my project management skills would improve and allow them – and me – to sleep more! 

Avery presented a number of basic ideas from the book that neatly made the argument for change in how project management is done. This started with linking risk homeostasis theory to the practice of project management. That is, even with improved techniques and an entire profession dedicated to it, one third of projects fail and another third fail to realise all of their intended benefits.

And the kicker: due to a pervasive perception that our collective project management abilities have improved, projects are becoming more ambitious, complex and expensive. This means that the failures are getting bigger too. I bought the book.

A few pages in and I quickly realised that it was my kind of book. As it turned out, the “lessons from Everest and Antarctica” were actually project management analyses of the initial attempts to climb Mount Everest and the early British expeditions in Antarctica. 

These projects had all the drama of ambition, personalities, new technology, deadly risk and the unknown, and as such are great for keeping the reader engaged. Avery’s own experiences ‘on the ice’, as the manager of New Zealand’s Scott Base and as a search and rescue coordinator, are also drawn upon. 

These boys-own stories kept my attention and made the material that much more accessible. Any reader who works in any kind of team should be able to read the vignettes, take in the theory and apply it to their own situation.

A lot of basic project management is the recognition and management of risk, and the author reviews the ‘risk register’ approach from the start. He clearly calls out “risk is your friend”, placing a high value on not just registering risks, but really thinking about them. His realistic approach is also evident in his CORA triangle – a diagram to illustrate the balance project leaders should seek between Capability, Outcomes and Risk Appetite. 

The section on advanced basics is of most technical value. Here Avery talks about organisational project management maturity and fitting the culture of a PMO to the culture of the company.  His message being that big organisations need project management maturity investment and leadership investment. Good metrics based arguments can be made for this.

In this section, there is also valuable insights into different forms of project review, more accurate costing, and the importance of ‘gates’ where decisions to proceed or stop a project are made.  The final two chapters focus on the organisational fit of project management and the role of strong, selfless leadership in achieving project goals.

This is a really good business book, and it’s written by a Kiwi in a style that is engaging and entertaining. The stories from Antarctica and Everest ensure that it will be picked up and read, while the chapters on advanced basics ensure that it will be kept on the shelf and referred to regularly. 

What the book said to me is that I’m focusing on the right stuff - mostly - when I’m considering the human elements of teams, or “stepping out of myself” to consider how I’m viewing risk or behaving in relation to it. This book, maybe even more than the admonishments of my last PMO, makes me a convert to the value of real project management.


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