What a 100 Year-Old Race to the South Pole Teaches Us About Design

Design informs most of what we come in contact with whether it be architecture, mobile devices, cars, software and web services, or a school’s curriculum.  Sentences are designed, edited down so they convey meaning with efficient elegance.  “Good” design delights with its simplicity, its flexibility and ease of use.

Design was on my mind while walking through the Museum of Natural History’s excellent exhibit on the race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to first reach the South Pole (1911-1912).  Perhaps it’s a strange place to be thinking about design, but expeditions, especially those attempting to first reach the South Pole, are amazing crucibles for design.  Each team had to carefully select its route and take nearly everything with them: fuel, clothing, plenty of food for themselves and their animals, shelter, transportation, etc.  It was critical to design the expeditions so that they would be flexible enough to meet changing conditions.  In fact, Scott didn’t realize he was in a race until receiving a surprise telegram from Amundsen: “BEG LEAVE INFORM YOU PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC — AMUNDSEN”.

It is through this lens that we can see how each team’s preparation, experience, and design choices impacted their efforts.  Ultimately, Scott reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had beat him to it.  Freezing cold, frostbitten, and running short of supplies, Scott and his team lost their lives on the return.  Tragically, the remaining polar team was found only 11 miles short of their main depot’s relative safety.  On the other hand, Amundsen’s team successfully reached the pole before Scott without any loss of life.  How did this happen?  What can design teach us about these outcomes?  How can these lessons be applied to the less lethal, but similar challenges of building teams and operating companies?

Competing Goals vs. Singularity of Purpose
Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition had competing goals.  Not only were they seeking to reach the South Pole first, but also they had various scientific goals requiring additional manpower and equipment.  Scott’s expedition was well-publicized and he knew that the success of the expedition would hang on whether he reached the pole.  While the scientific work was important, it was ultimately a distraction.  Scott setup camp at Cape Evans since it was a better area for the scientific work they planned to complete.  However, it was 60 miles further from the pole than Amundsen’s camp on the Ross Ice Shelf.  Scott had already disadvantaged his team before the journey began.

On the other hand, the Amundsen Expedition designed itself with one, clear goal: reach the south pole first.  The route, equipment, team members’ skills, mode of transportation, food supply – everything – was selected for the sole purpose of reaching the pole first.  Amundsen fielded a small, agile team with only nine men, some with arctic experience and others who were completely green.  But they were built for speed and brought 52 dogs with them.  In contrast, Scott had 65 men (including the ship team) when only five would make the final trek to the pole.  In a showing of Amundsen’s focus, he took only two pictures the entire expedition while Scott’s team extensively documented their efforts and brought 35,000 cigars with them.

Perhaps even more important was that everyone on Amundsen’s expedition understood that there was only one goal.  This likely freed expedition members to make informed decisions without having to weigh any choice in the context of competing goals.  Tellingly, on the return from the pole and nearing exhaustion, Scott’s team added 30 pounds of geological specimens to their sledges.

Start Simple and Iterate
Scott’s team also had a complex transportation plan that involved ponies, dogs, three motorized sledges, and “man-hauling” (like it sounds: hauling your own supplies).  The motorized sledges cost 7x what the dogs and ponies cost combined, although three-quarters of the distance was completed with man-hauling.  The ponies were only used for the first 25% of the trip as the ponies were not suited to travel up the Beardmore glacier.  In an inauspicious beginning for Scott, one of the motorized sledges fell through the ice while being unloaded from the ship, and the remaining two were abandoned due to mechanical failures.

Amundsen’s team kept things simple.  They relied exclusively on dogs for transportation, calculating correctly that dogs would be able to make it over any terrain they would encounter.  Despite their affection for the dogs, Amundsen’s expedition relied on weaker dogs for food, both for the dog team and themselves.  Scott was reluctant to use dogs in this way although he didn’t shy from using the ponies for food.  Scott also ignored the expert advice of Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, who told Scott to bring “dogs, dogs, and more dogs”.  Scott received this advice while trialling his new motor sledges in Norway and, likely feeling the momentum of the sledges’ expense and the effort involved in developing them, decided to continue using them.  While Amundsen fed his dogs with seals and penguins, Scott was forced to bring the ponies’ food from England and carry the extra weight during the expedition.

Upon reaching Antarctica, Amundsen’s lead skier, Olav Bjaaland, redesigned the sledges, tents and footwear.  While Scott’s team used the same sledges, Bjaaland shaved the Norwegians’ sledges down, reducing each sledge’s weight from 165 pounds to 48 pounds.  Further, the boxes hauled on the sledges were designed so that their contents could be accessed without unloading them.  The Norwegians also soldered their fuel cans closed to eliminate evaporation.  Scott knew of the evaporation issue from his experience on an earlier expedition with Shackleton, but Scott’s expedition used cork plugs anyway, and were dismayed to find that significant amounts of fuel had evaporated by the time the team reached the depots.  Lastly, Amundsen outfitted his men with loose-fitting fur clothing that kept them warm and dry, a technique he picked up from his experience with the Inuit.  Scott selected closer-fitting windproof materials that trapped perspiration, leaving his team wetter and colder.  Amundsen enabled the innate talents of his small team to run while successfully drawing on his experience and the advice of others.  These were all fairly small design choices that, in combination, had a very positive impact on Amundsen’s chances.

A Grand Vision and Practical Steps to Achieve It
The grand vision was to achieve the pole first, but each expedition sent teams ahead to lay necessary route markers and set up depots.  The markers made it easier to navigate their respective routes and the depots provided food, fuel, and equipment in the field.  During critical stretches, Amundsen’s team methodically laid markers every mile, using pre-painted black food containers to show the way.  Closer to the pole, he erected 6-foot cairns every three miles which included a note indicating the cairn’s location, the direction to the next cairn, and the distance to the next supply depot.  These cairns acted as effective milestones for the team, aiding navigation and providing much-needed signals of progress.

Scott’s depots were laid out less regularly and were marked with one flag each.  Walls used to protect the ponies during lunch and night stops were used as markers, so there was no regular spacing to help with navigation.  Unlike Amundsen’s markers, Scott’s were laid further apart making it impossible to travel on inclement days that had poor visibility.  With a simpler and more structured design for route-marking, Scott’s team would have traveled regardless of most weather, and might have been saved.

Building a Team
Building an effective expedition team meant finding the right balance of skills and personalities.  In preparation for the expedition, Scott hired an engineer, Reginald Skelton, to create the motorized sledges.  However, when it came time to choose the expedition members, Scott bowed to the demands of his second-in-command, “Teddy” Evans, who objected to Skelton’s selection.  Evans took issue with the fact that Skelton out-ranked him in the British Navy – Evans did not want a more senior officer to overshadow his position.  Allowing this issue to become politicized seems to be a clear lack of Scott’s leadership, who should have found a place for Skelton and dealt with Evans’ concerns.  Without Skelton’s skills, two of the three motorized sledges had to be abandoned after running into mechanical issues that Skelton likely could have fixed.

The Norwegians were also accomplished skiers and were able to keep up with the dogs pulling the sledges.  The Norwegians knew how to care for their dogs as well, keeping track of mileage and being sure not to overwork them.  Amundsen even brought Bjaaland, a champion skier, to pace his team.  While Scott also brought a Norwegian skier to train the rest of the men to ski, Scott didn’t require his men to train.  This became a major hindrance as most of his British teammates had very little or no experience on skis.  This hampered Scott’s progress as the men awkwardly learned to ski while on the expedition, while hauling their supplies, too.  Scott’s lack of leadership and seeming willingness to let politics impact his selection of individuals with the appropriate skills put his whole expedition at a disadvantage.

Making Your Own Luck
These two expeditions captured my imagination with the details we have from Scott’s diary and Amundsen’s own account.  It’s a fascinating piece of history that offers some interesting lessons on how to design and lead teams in conditions harsher than most of us will ever experience.  In his book The South Pole, Amundsen concludes:

I may say that this is the greatest factor – the way in which the expedition is equipped – the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

— Roald Amundsen

The defining principle I take away from Amundsen’s success is that if something can be done simply, it’s almost always preferable to a complex solution.  So, the next time someone offers you three motorized sledges (and nobody to fix them) for your polar expedition or 52 dogs, take the dogs.