The danger of projects

Publicerad 11 sep 2017 Caution - danger

Projects. They’re great, aren’t they? They achieve customized goals, ideally within budget and on time. But if we take a closer look, projects can be one of the most dangerous ways of organizing work.

And that is not because much of our project methodology has sprung from military projects, such as the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, and the Polaris missile system, which made it possible to launch such bombs from submarines. Projects are dangerous because they risk putting short-term wins above long-term strategies. In the following, we illustrate how this applies to any project by exploring what happened on K2, “The Savage Mountain”, in 2008.

- Traditionally, a project is seen as a temporary organization, that will end at some point rather than going on forever. As most project workers will have experienced, resources tend to be limited – in particular during the latter part of the project – and one still has to deliver the quality as promised. Of course, this is hard to achieve. Especially when you throw in potentially difficult stakeholders, human behavior and complex technology, says Markus Hallgren, professor at Umeå School of Business and Economics (USBE), with a wry smile.

Such limiting features exist in mountaineering expeditions too. There is a certain goal to be accomplished. Resources for two months are carried by porters for 100 kilometers or more up the mountain as camps are established. All this is done, and sweat is shed, in order to target the few days that represent the summit window, when the weather makes it possible to summit. Being isolated in a harsh physical environment, often surrounded by like-minded, target-oriented and sometimes egoistical individuals that you might not know makes the expedition interesting, to say the least. K2 is located in the Karakoram mountain range in Afghanistan and is the second highest mountain in the world. While lower than Mount Everest, it still rises 8,611 meters above sea level, and the technical skill required and notoriously bad weather makes it a very hard and potentially lethal climb. The summit-to-death ratio stands at about one person dying out of every four who try to summit (Everest’s ratio is about 3 in 700). Then again, K2 is known as the ultimate prize and the holy grail of mountaineering.

- Our research is based on interviews with most of the survivors, raw video from the events and close readings of documents and books. I would dare say that the data is really solid, says Markus . He continues: Like any high-profile project, K2 does not come easy. What project worth doing ever came easy? We often see how people seek to challenge themselves and go beyond their comfort zone to accomplish what they have set out to do. One aspect of this is intrinsic. But what if human behavior is in part a product of social structures like peer pressure and structures, for example how close to the goal one is? 

In 2008, eleven out of 27 mountaineers died during the final push for the summit. For about two months they had struggled to establish four camps on the mountain, battling themselves, team dynamics, harsh weather and snow. The climbers all knew that they were running out of time as the weather window was closing, and resources were dwindling to a bare minimum. They also knew that it is rare to experience good weather on K2 and they would not get a second chance to summit.  

- Limiting is the first mechanism that makes projects focus on short-term goals and it is inherent to the project form. There is a deadline, the resources are limited, in particular toward the end of the project, and the goal keeps getting closer. Turning back may not be possible without closing down the entire project and thereby losing the money that has been invested – not to mention the efforts that have been made to achieve success! Moreover, when we find ourselves near the end of a long project, our experience suggests that we have overcome hardships before. This gives us a sense of control and entitlement, prompting us to continue. But those experiences are biased! We do not know whether it was pure luck that made us succeed in the first place, and we are likely to prefer repeating success rather than failure. If we do learn from failure it “makes sense” to try to do something different from what failed. What we do not always realize is that our experiences make us slowly push the boundaries of what we can get away with, and what we change might be purely at random.

Before they started climbing, the 27 mountaineers (from several expeditions) had held meetings where they agreed to divide up tasks to avoid redundant work and to increase safety. One agreement was that there would be a first team that would fix the ropes above Camp IV. For several reasons, the rope-fixing was delayed by hours, meaning that most mountaineers were behind schedule. This may seem like a little thing, but any amount of time spent at such high altitude increases the risk for altitude sickness. With snow and rocks which can be de-lodged by the sun, the dangers increase. Still, only a few chose to turn back. Most of those who turned back did so because of external events, rather than because they were sticking to the climbing schedules that mountaineers often live by. Such climbing schedules state that if a mountaineer is not past a certain point on the mountain at a certain time, he or she will immediately turn back.

- The second mechanism – motivation – also makes projects dangerous. The limitations of a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Accepted, Realistic and Time-bound) goal delineate what should be achieved. Research teaches us that short time-bound goals are what motivate humans best, generally. SMART goals are thus excellent from an efficiency point of view. However, humans are emotionally attached to what they do. There is a human tendency to dislike being proven wrong. As a consequence, we do our utmost to achieve what we set out to do. This sometimes motivate us beyond what we can get away with.

At the end of the day, most of the climbers stood on the summit of K2, celebrating their success by calling family, sponsors and taking photos to commemorate the moment. The first person to summit did so at the reasonable time of 2.30 pm. The last one did so at 7.30 pm. Summiting after 5 pm is statistically extremely dangerous and in order to get there most of the climbers had pushed way beyond their climbing schedule. As darkness fell, the climbers started descending. The first few climbers made it down to the relative safety of Camp IV, but one of the first groups was caught in an avalanche that also tore down the ropes on one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the mountain. The torn ropes effectively captured the remaining climbers in what is known as the “Death Zone” above 8,000 meters, where one soon develops high altitude sickness, or dies from exposure to the weather. Several of the climbers died as they tried to free-climb the nearly vertical section with ice picks and crampons. Others were caught in additional avalanches, developed high altitude sickness and fell off the mountain, or died trying to help each other.

- The third mechanism – accountability – is associated with the visibility that follows from working in projects. A career in a project industry – any industry really – is dependent on success. You can’t always fail and get away with it. It affects promotions, salaries and your social reputation. The visibility inherent to projects singles out a person, making it hard to hide behind others or organizational processes, and thus making it hard to blame anyone else. 

Limitation, motivation and accountability thus set people up to go beyond what they can get away with. In other words, projects favor short-term goals above long-term achievements. On the mountain, that is illustrated by the ultimate sacrifice of life to reach the summit, but in ordinary project-based organizations, this contributes to sub-optimization, as the success of the project may become more important than the strategic intent and success of the organization.

- Should we just give up? Say to heck with projects? Heck no! Of course not! There are three things that we can take away from what happened on K2. First of all, separate decisions from activities by using a steering committee that is not emotionally attached to the success of the project. This also implies that plans and schedules have a value for structuring decisions. Second, do not simplify! Reality is complex and we cannot be sure that our previous experiences are always beneficial to us. Third, create an environment where everyone can speak up, and is ready to do so if something does not feel right. And, of course, be aware of the mechanisms as discussed. They may lead to dangerous outcomes that ultimately cost a lot of money and human suffering.

If you are interested in what happened on K2, or what project workers may learn from juxtaposing their experiences with what goes on in extreme surroundings like the mountains, access the podcast www.extremecontexts.com where adventurers and business wo/men are interviewed about their takeaways. Examples include Fredrik Sträng and Chris Klinke, two of the climbers who turned back and survived K2. More about the research is found at www.tripleED.com or www.markushallgren.com . Please feel free to connect on LinkedIn, or contact Markus at markus.hallgren@umu.se.

Marcus Hällgren, professor at Umeå School of Business and Economics

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