Reaching almost twenty thousand feet high, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest point in Africa. In Swahili, Kilimanjaro is translated as the “Mountain of Greatness.” In 2000, my brother and I decided to climb this great mountain. We spent months preparing including understanding what we would need to summit, designing our approach, getting the right equipment and training for endurance. We then spent one week executing the plan up the mountain. Since these are the same steps required in managing any project, I decided to write a case study on Project Management best practices in the context of planning and executing our journey up the mountain.
Like most big projects, we had an almost unattainable vision; to summit the tallest mountain in Africa. We had fixed resources (our own money) and a fixed timeline. Historically, 80% of people who try to summit this mountain fail for one reason or another. Interestingly, this is the same percentage that experts attribute to the success of any IT project. We had to plan for this correctly so that our goal could be achieved.
Our first step was to gather as much information as possible. We wanted to understand the history of other attempts, the associated risks, and anything else that might influence our project.
Some of our discoveries include:
- HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) is a potentially fatal condition where fluid fills the lungs of a climber if they ascend to quickly
- There are several ways to get to the top
- They have a wet rainy season and a cold winter season
- The terrain is uneven with parts that are very slippery because of scree (small rocks which slide under your feet as you try to climb up)
- Since the summit is the highest point on the continent, there is nothing to block the winds which can get to forty below zero
We would need to use this information to prepare ourselves for the journey. This relates directly to the initiation of a project where it is important to give the team insight into the history and potential risks from which a plan can be made.
Hire the Experts
Neither my brother nor I had ever hiked a mountain of this magnitude before so we sought the advice of people who had a proven record. We collected our short list of tour companies (vendors). Based on our vendor analysis (cost, track record, services offered, etc.) we came up with a partner. We selected a company that had a proven track record of success and who could organize and execute the details for us.
The other option would have been to fly to Tanzania and figure it out ourselves which would have had an extremely low probability of success. This sounds like an easy decision, but too often companies attempt to jump into projects without expert advice and then make the mistakes that an expert would have already experienced (“those who do not learn from history…”). For example, our tour company provided us with a “bathroom tent.” This was nothing more than a tent containing a plastic seat with a hole and plastic bag in it. We didn’t see any other hikers on the mountain with one of these and it made the difference between something civilized and trying to balance behind a rock.
Create a Plan
We researched the activities that needed to take place. We needed equipment, logistics (flights, hotels, etc.), and a plan to condition ourselves. Working with our partner, we laid these out into a plan that we could manage to ensure that everything was in place.
We also mapped out a plan for the mountain. Based on our risks, we had decided to ascend to thirteen thousand feet and stay there for three days while we acclimatized (to avoid HAPE). The plan also accounted for the timing of the climb by scheduling it after the rainy season out and before the winter season. We would ascend at night and reach the summit by daybreak.
On projects, creating the plan is one of the most critical activities. Once the project starts, it will cost more time and resources to change direction, so it is important to consider things carefully up front. Half way up the mountain, we would not have been able to take a different starting route.
Define Appropriate Roles
A best practice is to source work to people who are best suited to do the work. On our trip, the provider that we selected had agreed to provide us with people who would carry our tents and prepare the food (I felt like a rap star with my “posse” of people following me around). These were not things that we wanted to concern ourselves with but that were critical to our success. We could not climb without eating and staying warm and carrying these ourselves would have left us exhausted for our summit attempt.
Projects must have the same approach. Companies do not have the resources to specialize in every technical field. They need to consider sourcing specific technologies to organizations that can manage the work and stay informed of the changes to the technology.
Use of Technology
Another best practice is to use technology as an enabler of success. We learned that there would be a lot of hiking over unstable terrain and that the summit was forty below zero with winds. We turned to technology to help us overcome these obstacles. We purchased special hiking poles for stabilization and special boots that would keep our feet warm at the summit.
There is a trade-off between technology and cost, though, as we could have used a helicopter to meet our goal of getting to the top, but that was not financially feasible (not to mention it would have been cheating). Projects should consider the use of technology to enable their success, but also look at the costs of doing so (cost, maintenance of technology, obsolescence, etc.).
Use of Prototypes
Our plan was to hike other mountains that were similar to Kilimanjaro. We wanted to prototype the experience and gauge the success of our training. Living in the United States, the best we could get was in Colorado (8,000 feet lower than Kili). We learned that our technology worked and that we could tolerate altitudes above ten thousand feet. We did not want to risk testing these out for the first time when we were in Africa. Imagine our success rate if we had just tried on our new boots for the first time when we arrived in Africa. A woman in our “expedition” had to descend the mountain in the middle of the climb because she could not handle altitudes anywhere near the 19,500 foot goal.
- Get as much information as possible to identify risks and opportunities
- Have a carefully thought-out plan
- Use experts and historical information to plan and estimate out a project
- Partner with providers who have the expertise and outsource that work which is not a core competency
- Use technology to enable success, where appropriate
- Use prototypes to test approaches and technologies
There comes a point where the planning stops and the project starts moving. Along the way there are always unplanned obstacles and challenges that come up. This project was no different.
Day 1 – Kickoff
We arrived in Africa in anticipation of our new project. On the first day we got to meet the team which was made up of tribal guides. Each person in our team had one guide and some porters/cooks. We took a three-hour bus ride with everyone to The Mountain. The entire way no one said a word except for an occasional conversation in Swahili and some looks at us (my guess is they were betting on whether we would succeed or not). There were clearly cultural and language differences that we would need to get past if we were to work together as a team. The beginning of a project is always difficult because people are new to each other and are trying to figure out the relationships.
After arriving at the mountain, we unloaded our equipment and started the hike. We had planned our trip to come after the rainy season. The good news was that there wasn’t much rain while we were there. The bad news was that we would have to hike through six inches of mud. Our technology support (hiking poles) helped us stay upright for the most part. This day was spent hiking through the thick rainforest. The trail was covered in mud and all we could see in every direction (including up) was green vegetation.
Since we were hiking together, we could only move as fast as our slowest person. We had a team member who moved very slowly. This resulted in us hiking into the night time on the first day. We had to use our headlamps to see at night, which we were planning on using on the summit night. We would have to figure something out for light when we summitted.
We finally arrived at our camp, had some dinner, and then went to bed. We really couldn’t sleep because of the excitement of the trip and the new experience.
- Do team-building activities to build the one team, one goal concept
- Learn how to say “slow American” in Swahili
- Help the team members who are struggling, as their performance affects the entire team
- Be flexible with your approach as the reality becomes different than the plan
Day 2 – Immersion
We woke up very early this next day and started to climb again. We continued through the rainforest for some time. We continued to hike very slowly and my legs began to hurt. This concerned me since it was only the second day. My shoulders had also started hurting from the weight of my backpack.
After a few more hours of hiking, we finally came above the tree level. This was significant because, after about fourteen hours of hiking, we could finally see our goal. This is so important to a project because we are often so focused on the steps we are taking that we rarely look up to see the goal that we are trying to achieve.
We were now at around twelve thousand feet and it was very cold. We had the appropriate equipment but nothing could prepare us for the spider-mosquitoes (we don’t know what they were, but they looked like a cross between spiders and mosquitoes). At the camp we noticed these critters all over the ground. As it got dark out, they disappeared because it got very cold. We learned later that they all must have gone into our tent and sleeping bags. We spent the rest of the night trying to get them out of our tent, bags, clothes, and psyche.
- Project work is painful at times, but you need to work through it
- Envision the goal and see the bigger picture
- Take care of bugs when you notice them and before they get out of control
Day 3 – Roller Coaster
We continued hiking for another eight hours up and down the mountain. There were many valleys and hills on the path. Since we were trying to move higher, we knew that every time there was a valley that we went down, that we could have more ground to make up to come higher. On projects, there are always obstacles that take you away from your ultimate goal and they have to be worked through to get you back on track.
We camped out at the base of a wall that we would be scaling the next day. That night, our companion was coughing and could not breathe at the altitude. It was 15,000 feet and she was a smoker. We would decide to send her down the mountain the next day since there was little chance of her making the wall and her health was deteriorating.
- Sometimes the work takes you away from your goal and you have to make up the ground
- Sometimes it’s okay to change resources if they are not the appropriate fit and risk the end goal
Day 4 – The Wall
We had a scope change. With our companion leaving the envoy, we had to send her down with a guide, some porters, and one of the two stoves used for cooking. Often during projects, a critical dependency gets impacted and teams have to respond accordingly.
The wall was very scary as it required a lot of climbing and hand-over-hand scaling up rocks. My brother and I are not fans of heights and there was not much of an area between us and the ledge. We couldn’t turn back, but going forward meant more anxiety and pain. We continued on to the next camp.
- Even though you have a plan, you have to be flexible to changes in scope.
- Projects often hit a wall in the middle where the team needs to push through.
Day 5 – Almost There
On this day we would go up to around 16,000 feet. This meant a very steep hike for the day. Upon getting to the camp, we met a team of South Africans who were not able to summit because they all had dysentery. I realized at this point that 80% of people who fail do not just fail on the last summit day but as a function of their journey through the process. This holds true for project managers that may make mistakes along the way, preventing them from attaining their goal.
We laid out our special summiting gear and tried to get some sleep before the last push. Because of our steady pace we were able to have enough energy to try the summit. Oftentimes, people may rush too much at the bottom and then not have the stamina to finish. This is very relevant to projects that get behind and then push the team hard for too long and the people cannot complete their mission.
- Completing the goal is a result of the journey along the way and not just the last push
- Need to pace out the work. People get burnt out if they run for too long.
Day 6 – The Summit
We started our final push at midnight. We “deployed” our technology (head lamp, boots, hiking polls) and started the trek. The “scree” (a grouping of small rocks) was everywhere and it felt like we slid down one step for every two that we took uphill. Because of our slow start on day 1, our head lamps ran out very quickly. Luckily we had a clear night and a full moon which reflected off of the glaciers. My legs hurt so badly, but I focused on one step at a time and after six hours, we finally made it to the top to see the sun rise.
At the top, I felt very nauseous and “lost” all of the food that I had eaten before. At that altitude, your body only focuses on breathing and everything else shuts down. We took our pictures and then started back down again.
It took us another three hours to get back down. The scree was less forgiving when you go downhill and combining that with my lack of energy, I must have slipped and fallen about ten times. The decent was difficult mentally as well because we had already reached our goal (to summit) and had no motivation to continue pushing through pain.
- There is nothing like the feeling of meeting your goals
- Once the goal is completed, there is still work that needs to get focus and attention
Day 7 – Project Closure
We continued down the mountain for another four hours. Since we were near the base, we had to go back through the mud again. We finally finished and went back to the camp where we celebrated our success with the team. This included songs in Swahili and a lot of beer.
- Celebrate successes with the team
Most projects have goals as aggressive as summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. In order to be successful, the Project Manager must gather as much information as possible and make a realistic plan. This plan has to be flexible to the inevitable changes that will occur. To increase the probability of success, the PM should look to source non-competency skills and use technology.
I would also suggest setting up a bathroom tent for the team, just in case.
About the author:
Kerry R. Wills, Director of Portfolio Management, PMP
The author of books “Applying Guiding Principles of Effective Program Delivery” and “Essential Project Management Skills“