Why remember Columbus?

300px-atlantic_ocean_toscanelli_1474

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, Florentine astronomer 1474 projection of the Atlantic Ocean geography (shown superimposed on a modern map), which directly influenced Columbus’s plans.

I’m happy it’s Columbus Day, not because I’m a believer in the myths surrounding Columbus, rather because the results he achieved remain impressive on a global scale.  If you take the perspective of 1st mover, as in 1st to arrive you miss the point. Likewise, unlike discoverers who know what they have discovered, Columbus up until his death argued with navigators over the identity of the lands he found.

Columbus is a story of failure due to incomplete as well as misinterpreted information, dissipated urgency that only political prudence and luck turned around.

Columbus’ “successful”  1492 voyage, opened the door to Europe’s active exploration to the west, but not for the reasons Columbus claimed. He failed in his prime objective- securing a shortcut to the Far East.

Luckily, the Americas were rich in other resources, which other explorers with political allegiances to countries other than Spain soon claimed.  In 1497, flying England’  flag,  Newfoundland was “discovered”.  This paved the way for England’s extensive colonization of North America, while Spain continued explorations and claims to  Central and South America.

Yes, history is rewritten by the victors and the district of Columbia bears the mark of anti English sentiment and ,   part of his myth……..

Learning from Failure

Everyone experiences failure in one way or another. Recently, I read a wonderful blog post why projects fail by Tom Toohey and Mike Kellim of Envision-Business Consulting. They go beyond the  general takes by the business community, to describe why it’s difficult to face up to project failure. The post lays out the general variations, quotes a Harvard Business Review study, Gallup data and then does something wonderful. It makes clear why projects are difficult. This isn’t a simple lesson in dealing with uncertainty, the authors leverage the reality of elapsing time and situations between when initiating project decisions are made and completing the work necessary to move the project forward.

In the days of Columbus, geographic distances were impossible to traverse quickly and safely, whether it was news or goods. Everyone suffered the same constraints and information varied in quality and authority. To be a mariner or a trader uncertainty was perhaps attributed to natural law—if you remember your history, these events predate Copernicus and Kepler,  and centuries before Darwin upsets the notion of natural order.

According to historian Edmund Morgan, in Wikipedia

Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied astronomy, geography, and history books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, …[23]

 

Columbus and his self guided studies left his knowledge unchecked and the urgency to find an alternative safe, and speedy sea passage to the Far East fueled his overconfidence. Project management works the same way with many estimations left unchecked, and unchallenged in spite of considerably greater access to information and in a more timely manner.

So what does Toohey and Kellim say and recommend organizations do to avert inevitable failures?  They don’t just advocate for better Leadership, or better Project Management methodology or reduce excuses to my personal favorite, the unforeseen circumstances. Their experiences recognize these are merely substitutes for poor communications. They suggest a closer inspection will turn up another common cause—one or more gaps between what people know and their skills/experiences doing that same thing.  Just like Columbus, competency appears to be grossly underrepresented, while confidence remains  greatly overstated.

Depending on whether organizations make use of post or pre-mortem analysis of the project, several support mechanisms will increase the chance of project’s success. Face it, circumstances and situations don’t always remain in sync with what you know, or your experience making uncertainty about the future ever present and luck will always be a factor in meeting future expectations.  The question is what else are you relying upon to make your investment generate value?

If you want to learn more about Columbus, Wikipedia is pretty good. I also recommend that you retell his story to your team and find parallels to test your own assumptions, of course, I’m happy to facilitate.  Either way let me know what you learned, or better yet changed to improve your odds of success.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s