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The Paradox of Perseverance: Grit Out Or Pivot Now?

One afternoon, on the small Portuguese island of Madeira, a Norwegian ship captain named Roald Amundsen stood in front of his assembled crew. Just a few hours later, they were set to embark on an expedition to discover the North Pole.

But there was a problem. The North Pole had apparently just been discovered. Twice.

First, Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary, both independently claimed to have reached the North Pole in the preceding months while Amundsen and his team were still preparing. Suddenly, the Norwegian team’s inspiring, crystal clear goal—be the first people to reach 90 degrees north—was shrouded in uncertainty.

They had planned. They had trained. They were ready. But did the goal still make sense?

Courtesy of COVID-19, many leaders, entrepreneurs, and salespeople are sitting on the same dilemma. Does it still make sense to pursue the 2020 goals we laid out in January?

If we retrace the steps of the Norwegian explorers, we might discover clues for finding our own way forward.

THE PROBABLE-PROFITABLE PARADIGM

When we think about setting a goal—whether it’s losing ten pounds, growing sales by 10%, or watching 10,000 hours of streaming video before coronavirus is cured—our minds try to answer two basic questions:

How probable is it?

How profitable is it?

Is it highly probable that my wife and I could knock out all three seasons of Ozark this weekend while our kids slipped into a Fortnite coma? Yes. But will it be profitable? Not so much.

After Roald Amundsen became famous for successfully navigating the fabled Northwest Passage, his conquest of the North Pole seemed more probable than ever. His subsequent best-selling book and lucrative lecture tour gave proof that a North Pole expedition could also be highly profitable.

But the rival claims of Peary and Cook instantly changed everything. While success has many fathers, Amundsen quickly learned that second place has many deadbeat dads.

The public lost interest. The Norwegian Parliament cut his funding. Private donors canceled their pledges. His “product” no longer appealed to his fickle market.

BLINDED BY GRIT?

At this point, most people would have quit. But quitting was not in Amundsen’s nature.

In his late thirties, the tall and trim explorer with short-cropped blonde hair and the drooping jowls of a bloodhound, had centered his entire existence on doing hard—nearly impossible—things. He had no wife. No kids. No outside hobbies. Exploration was his life.

Although nobody questioned Amundsen’s skill and commitment, his friends and observers—not to mention the few remaining lenders whose money he hadn’t yet returned—worried that Amundsen’s never-say-die attitude was turning him into a dangerously irrational businessman.

What they didn’t yet know, was how savvy Amundsen had become about the psychology of leadership. As all good leaders do, Amundsen accepted the brutal reality: The North Pole goal no longer made sense.

But Amundsen did not just quit.  He replaced the old goal with a new win.

That afternoon in Madeira, Amundsen revealed his true plan.  “It is my intention,” he told his team, “to sail southwards, and…try to reach the South Pole.”

In one breath, he abandoned the North Pole expedition.  In the next breath, he pitched the South Pole trip to his team as a race against Robert F. Scott’s British expedition headed to the same destination.

HOW TO WIN WHEN YOUR TRUE NORTH GOES SOUTH

“Never has a man achieved a goal so diametrically opposed to his wishes.”

–Roald Amundsen

Remarkably, all 18 of Amundsen’s team members decided to join his South Pole expedition with only a moment’s notice.  Two years later, they all returned to civilization as history-making heroes. Why?

People. Like. Winning.  I do.  You do.  Your team does.

Stubbornly pursuing an unattainable goal is not courageous.  At best, it is wishful thinking.  At worst, it is irresponsible.  It destroys what’s left of your team’s morale while squandering minutes, dollars, and creative capital. 

If your original North Pole goal was about increasing sales, what if you defined a South Pole win to end 2020 #1 in your region, or in your market, or in some other meaningful category?   Even though your top line revenue goals might not be attainable, you can still have the #1 response time, or #1 rated customer service, or be the #1 most productive manufacturing facility.

The pandemic has been an equal opportunity enema for every player in your industry. Your competitors are facing the same challenges you are. That means you can still inspire your team with the pursuit of a big win that will strengthen your relative position.

Of course, you can’t increase market share without making sales. Which is the point. The old goal and the new win are aiming at the same future. But they feel totally different.

The old goal feels like work. The new win feels like fun.

The old goal inspires anxiety. The new win inspires creativity.

The old goal is about surviving winter. The new win is about striving for spring.

Which one do you want to spend the rest of 2020 pursuing?

 


Notes & Further Reading

1. The details about Amundsen’s re-routing of his planned expedition from the North Pole to the South Pole come from Stephen Brown’s book The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen.

2. I first learned about Roald Amundsen years ago in Jim Collins and Morten Hansen’s book Great by Choice. In my humble opinion, this is an underappreciated volume of the Jim Collins catalog. It’s more useful than Built to Last and possibly more relevant than Good to Great in today’s world.

3. The Probable and Profitable Paradigm is my version of what the academic literature on decision-making sometimes refers to as “desirability” and “feasibility.”

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