(By Sean Chapple) One thing that I have learnt over the years is the value of starting out on an expedition with the end in mind. When starting to plan a new expedition, I always set aside time to really understand what success would mean to me. By doing so this helps me understand what needs to be in place in order to achieve that success and enables me to plan accordingly. When you are stood on the ice about to begin your journey success really is underpinned by what you have done, or not done, over the preceding months!
Define the Expedition Mission & Vision
I always begin by defining the expedition’s mission and vision. Whilst for most the expedition mission can be straight forward, when you start to think about the vision it takes a little more effort. As an example, a mission to complete a North Pole ski is fairly straight forward, but if the vision is to raise awareness and funds for a particular cause then this will impact on many aspects of the expedition including marketing, media, communications and fund raising efforts to make this happen.
Vision is the optimal desired outcome, or the mental picture, of what I want to achieve over time. It is the vision that shapes an expedition. It inspires and motivates others to become engaged, involved and provides a deeper purpose for the team members – vitally important during an expedition when the going gets tough!
Learn from Others
Researching as much information as possible helps me understand the potential of what I will be dealing with. Past expedition reports, published articles, books and online resources such ExplorersWeb are some obvious sources. However, the most valuable research source comes from a lesson that I learnt during my career with the Royal Marines. When planning missions we had a list of principles to help focus our efforts, one of which was ‘Seek local knowledge’. In the world of expeditions this to me means speaking to those have gone before me, seeking advice from people familiar with the region I am venturing into and speaking to the experts in the various arenas that will impact the expedition such as communications, equipment and rations.
When I set out to complete a return ski to the South Pole I was privileged to spend a weekend with British Explorer, Conrad Dickson who had a completed a similar journey the season before. Before my winter Iceland crossing I spent time with the SAS who were embarking on a North Pole expedition, to share plans and approaches. The insights and lessons learnt from both were invaluable.
You may have heard the old saying ‘If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.’ If not, then it is very good advice, as planning is essential for a number of reasons. Planning is about applying resources (people, finances, time and material) efficiently and answering those all important questions - ‘what, why, where, who, when and how’ in order to create a road map to success. Through planning, I am able to retain more control of events as they unfold and don’t find myself reacting as issues occur or fire-fighting when they escalate and become major problems.
An important aspect is how much of this function I share with my fellow team members. A plan often begins with me having developed it and over time move to a situation where my team members have greater involvement and management of the plan. By actively having them involved creates shared ownership of the expedition and it becomes ‘our’ expedition. I always invest considerable time creating fairly detailed timelines and milestones, or goals, for the various activities working backwards from D-Day (the first day on the ice). This is where knowledge of MS Project can come in very handy!
I always make time for regular meetings to discuss how the ‘timeline’ is developing, identify any areas that need adjusting and agree on the allocation of resources. I also find it useful to brief my teams on what I consider to be the ‘Main Effort’ at that particular time. This helps focus efforts and make best use of the available resources– which are often limited in the early stages of an expedition.
I approach my expedition like I am running a small business and put in place systems or processes to organise effectively. These are not aimed at stifling initiative or freedom of action of my teams, but provide an orderly and structured way of doing business. It provides a framework to support us all in moving towards milestones. This includes creating a Team Charter which is designed to direct team efforts and also set out any boundaries. The charter includes Team Purpose, Roles, Internal & External Communication Rules, Decision-Making Process and Meeting Guidelines. The Team Charter is always created by ‘the team’ as this gains commitment by all to abide by its guidelines.
Share the Information
I am strong advocate providing an environment in which my team members can share information. With team members who are often novices to polar adventure by sharing as much of my knowledge and experience, and that of others, they are equipped with the knowledge to contribute more effectively in expedition planning and preparation. It is often a steep learning curve for them at the start with lots to take in, but the resulting benefits are worth the time.
Ideally this is achieved through face-to-face team meetings, although this is not always practical due to personal or work commitments, or being geographically dispersed. However, in the modern age these are no longer barriers and technology provides many solutions for information sharing at little or no cost. Cloud storage such as DropBox and Evernote are powerful applications that are great for sharing information and Skype and FaceTime enable virtual face-to-face meetings.
Furthermore, with each of my team members working on different tasks, or in discrete ‘Working Groups’ as I call them, by sharing information they are always aware of the bigger picture and how their piece of the jigsaw fits in. For example, a Working Group overseeing fund raising may note that the Communications Working Group has established that the satellite airtime requirement is significantly higher than initially thought which will result in an increase in fundraising.
Embarking on an expedition is a major undertaking, a big commitment and often a juggling act between work, family and other commitments. By having a clear plan established and arrangements in place to deliver on the plan I am able to manage my time much more efficiently. More importantly the chances of success are significantly increased and what at first may seem little more than an ambitious undertaking soon becomes an entirely achievable prospect.
Recent events in High Arctic and on Everest
Recent events in High Arctic and Everest highlight that however much time you invest in planning you must always be prepared to encounter setbacks. The UK military use the adage 'no plan survives first contact' as a reminder to military commanders planning operations. This underpins the rationale that despite careful, and detailed, planning you should always be prepared to react to events which are beyond your control. In the context of expeditions it is always disappointing when I read reports of expeditions not succeeding due to setbacks which could have been realistically foreseen.
I invest considerable time in table-top exercises with my teams where we role-play scenarios. The scenarios are varied and I always endeavor to think of the 'worse case situation'. - critical equipment failure, weather conditions, injuries etc. Table-top exercises do not seek to provide answers to 'all' the unknowns, but it does helps ensure that preparations and arrangements are in place to cover many of them. More importantly, when setbacks do occur on the ice, for they undoubtedly will, the team is far more equipped to find a solution, because in all likelihood previous table-top exercises would have explored some aspect of the issue.
Sean Chapple has planned, managed and led over 20 expeditions beyond the Arctic and Antarctic circles. He spent an earlier career as an officer in the Royal Marines gaining operational and management experiences across the globe and has since held positions in senior commercial leadership and consultancy roles. For over 20 years Sean has been involved in building and leading high performance teams in a diverse range of industries. He is also a motivational speaker and author of several books.
Sean Chapple’s website
Opinion: Royal Marines Officer Sean Chapple about polar teamwork and success (Part 1/2)
Opinion: Royal Marines Sean Chapple's 9 strategies on the ice (part 2/2)
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