Risky Business – Managing projects in unfamiliar territory.

Who would willingly take on complex projects in an unfamiliar or even hostile field of activity? – Sometimes a manager just has to. Are there any rules or guidelines to help manage projects into the unknown?

I recently read a wonderful saga of Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who led several very ambitious and adventurous

John Bailey’s book published by Pan Macmillan Australia 2011

projects, journeying around unexplored regions in northern and central Australia during the 1840’s. He launched out knowing little or nothing about what was in store for his party and experienced many perilous circumstances eventually, on his last journey, disappearing without a trace somewhere in Central Australia. He did however achieve enormous personal success in discovering and opening up large tracts of the continent and adding greatly to the knowledge of native plants, animals and geology.

Nevertheless his approach to planning and executing these projects of amazing exploration can offer a few lessons to us today in how not to manage projects of highly complex and risky nature. His style of management in these ventures created significant hardship and even contributed to the injury and deaths of some of his companions.

I do not suggest that as managers we should avoid risk altogether or refuse projects that put us in unknown or previously unexperienced situations. After all, taking calculated risks and being adventurous, whether in life or business, quite regularly leads to gratifying outcomes and profitable returns. However in our modern times of technology and professional focus there should be no excuse for not adopting a well structured and disciplined way of taking on difficult projects but at the same time reducing risk and making the unknown aspects still challenging but not dangerous.

So what lessons do Leichhardt’s shortcomings teacher us about project management?

  • Acquire an appropriately skilled team – choose your people carefully for what they must contribute to the success of the project, not just because of their pedigree, their connections or because they will be submissive to the leader’s will.
  • Have a plan that is more than just the objective – making it up as you go is not recommended practice, especially in unfamiliar environments. Many disasters can occur between the starting point and the final objective.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask others for their opinion and value those that are given – pride and arrogance in leadership will stifle useful suggestions, some of which may prove the difference between success and failure.
  • Have a contingency plan or exit strategy for when things are beyond redemption – disaster management planning  is essential in a project that could cause major damage to your business or your reputation if it gets out of control.
  • Obsessive dedication and force of will are not enough – collaborative endeavour will always prove more beneficial than dictatorial autocracy.
  • Think of every possible risk, prepare for their mitigation and then think some more –don’t limit your risk assessment to the painfully obvious – remember the “unknown unknowns”
  • Don’t get distracted from the critical path – once you are on your way keep focused on the main game even if other attractive targets come into view.
  • Ensure that all of the team know the complete plan not just their part in it – flexibility and ability to react quickly relies on everyone understanding the whole plot and thus being able to identify opportunities.
  • Be able to tell early if the plan is going astray and have pre-planned actions to get it back on track – delays in making decisions to rectify divergence from plan often create other difficulties that compound project problems.
  • Appoint good lieutenants and trust them with important tasks – if everyone is waiting for orders from the top, nothing will get done.
  • Knowing when enough is enough – the adage of “never give up” is fine as a general motivator but it is also important to exercise good judgement as to when it is sensible to stop throwing good resource after bad, or worse, driving your team to exhaustion and ill heath with no hope of success.

Overall, vainly striving for glory against impossible odds is a pastime that belongs in the 19th Century. These days the odds – economic, political and business environment – are often still challenging but we have the opportunity to pit our project management skills against them with far better strategic and operational tools than our friend Leichhardt had. 

Nevertheless we can still admire the great man for his fortitude and dogged determination to live his dream.


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