I think most of us agree that projects are inherently risky endeavors. We don’t normally talk about them that way but let’s face it, if they weren’t risky we would treat them like business as usual. Projects are usually associated with something new, something we haven’t done before or some kind of change—making them risky.
Flying home from San Francisco on Friday night I finished a new book I’d picked up a couple of weeks ago. First published in 1900, Sailing Alone Around the World Alone by Joshua Slocum may not have the most captivating title, but it describes in detail Slocum’s solo circumnavigation around the globe in a derelict 36 foot sloop, Spray, he rebuilt himself. He may not have been the first to do it, but he was the first to do it alone.
Setting sail from Boston in April of 1895, at the age of 51, Slocum set out on what many thought was a “fool’s errand.” There were many who didn’t think he would make it back alive. He recognized the risks associated with such an endeavor, but he had a couple of things going for him that the average guy in a 36 fool sailboat might not. As it turned out, his skills didn’t eliminate the risks of his journey, but they helped him mitigate what might have otherwise been disaster. Do you and the members of your project team share some of these skills/behaviors?
- Preparation and Experience: This wasn’t Slocum’s first experience on the high seas. He’d been a sea captain on a number of ships over the course of his career, running away from home at a young age to begin a life at sea. He’d even been shipwrecked and forced to build his own boat to return home. He was no stranger to the sea and the challenges associated with traveling both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Challenging projects require preparation and some experience to ensure success.
- Flexibility and the Ability to Adapt to Difficult Circumstances: Chased by pirates, pursued by hostile natives, illness, rough seas and horrible weather sometimes made Slocum’s circumnavigation a challenge. Nevertheless, the ability to adjust expectations and adapt to challenging situations made it possible for Slocum to keep going when others might have abandoned hope and given up. Sometimes “stuff” happens and project leaders need to adjust their plans to accommodate. Being flexible is a critical part of achieving project success.
- A Willingness to Accept Help From Others: It didn’t seem to matter where he stopped. Alone on the sea, people were always willing to help him make repairs to the Spray and offer provisions to help him along the way. As news of his adventure spread around the world, more and more people became aware of what he was doing and were willing to help. However, even strangers who knew nothing of what he was about were amazed that he was sailing alone and offered help along the way. Are you and your team willing to look outside the team for help when needed?
Risk aversion would have kept Slocum safe at home, while a willingness to accept the potential for risk and devise a way to mitigate expected problems made Joshua Slocum a pioneer; and allowed him to successfully do what no man had done before.
Although we might not ever face hostile natives, pirates or the depths of the sea, we need the same skills and behaviors that helped Slocum along his journey.
If you’d like to read more about dealing with risks, you might find these recent posts interesting: Sometimes the Smart Plan is to Regroup, Rethink and Retreat or Risk Management: Don’t Become a Casualty.