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Unfolding failure. Lessons from a melting iceberg

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Ever faced situations where ideas varied in execution quality? There are good ideas poorly executed, bad ideas well executed, and then there are bad ideas executed even worse. Let me share an example of the latter. In July, the eighth edition team of the "Arctic Challenge" expedition set out from Costa del Sol to Greenland. Their goal? To document climate change effects and undertake the "Iceberg Operation" — transporting a 15,000-kilogram (approx. 33,000-pound) glacier chunk to Spain, exhibiting it in central Malaga, where it would gradually melt.

Noble intention to raise climate awareness, right? Well, it stirred controversy, especially drawing criticism from Ecologistas en Acción, labeling it counterproductive and mere PR by authorities.

The Project

Led by Málaga explorer Manuel Calvo Villena, the expedition ran from July 17th to August 3rd. The plan? Ship the massive ice chunk in a refrigerated vessel at -22°C from Greenland to southern Spain. All seemed well until the shipping company reported a mishandled load, leading the ice block to impact the container doors, breaking into four pieces. Despite this setback, they decided to continue. After days at sea (more than initially planned), the captain confirmed the iceberg wouldn't arrive, sharing a picture where the largest piece resembled a watermelon. Everyone was astonished. The project went belly up... or maybe not?

Success or failure

Ever heard the Spanish saying that it's better people talk about you, even if negatively? The gist: attention, even if negative, may hold more value than being completely forgotten. The failure gained worldwide notoriety, featured in over 180 international media outlets. One could argue that the goal of raising awareness about global warming succeeded, albeit through an unexpected path. Speaking about the project's failure meant talking about the underlying issue of climate change.

The Sydney Opera House project is another example — initially a failure later considered a success. The difference? Sydney Opera House was a good idea poorly executed, evident in its massive cost overrun and delays. In contrast, bringing a massive Arctic ice chunk was flawed from the start. There wasn't enough time or common sense applied to analyze the energy cost of hauling such a load at sub-zero temperatures across such distances — about 1500 metric tons of CO2 contributing to the very climate change the project aimed to address. It's a classic case that should've gone back to the drawing board before diving into such foolishness. In a way, it's reminiscent of world leaders jetting off in private planes to climate summits with entourages of gas-guzzling cars.


Next time you're offered a lead or participation in a project, take the time to reflect on the idea's validity and purpose behind it. What some call the "higher purpose" or the "why". 

Thanks for reading!

Posted on: November 17, 2023 08:56 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Great one, Eduard!

Dear Edward
Stop to think...
This is what many entrepreneurs lack :-)

Thanks for your feedback, glad that you enjoyed it!

Indeed, common sense is sometimes the less common of senses.

Dear Eduard,

Your anecdote about the "Arctic Challenge" expedition and its attempt to transport a large chunk of glacier from Greenland to Spain is a compelling example of the complex relationship between a project's intentions, execution, and eventual impact. This case highlights several key aspects of project management and the importance of aligning an initiative's goals with its execution and public perception.

The "Arctic Challenge" project, despite its noble intention of raising climate change awareness, evidently fell short in execution, leading to criticism and controversy. The logistical and environmental implications of transporting a massive ice chunk across such a distance were, it seems, not thoroughly considered. This oversight resulted in the project inadvertently contributing to the problem it aimed to address, demonstrating a disconnect between the project's purpose and its execution.

Your comparison with the Sydney Opera House project is insightful. It illustrates how a project can transform from a perceived failure to a success over time, depending on its execution and long-term impact. The Sydney Opera House, despite its initial setbacks, eventually became an iconic landmark, symbolizing successful architectural ambition. In contrast, the "Arctic Challenge" project appears to have been flawed from the outset, lacking a comprehensive analysis of the environmental cost and feasibility.

This situation underscores the importance of critical evaluation in project management. Before embarking on a project, especially one with significant environmental implications, it is crucial to assess the feasibility, potential impact, and public perception comprehensively. This includes considering the environmental footprint, logistical challenges, and how the project aligns with its intended message or goal.

Your conclusion about reflecting on a project's validity and the purpose behind it is a valuable takeaway. It emphasizes the need to consider the 'higher purpose' or 'why' of a project, ensuring that the execution aligns with the intended goals and values. This reflective approach can help prevent missteps and ensure that projects contribute positively to their intended cause.

In light of this discussion, it's important to ask: How can project managers better align their projects' intentions with their execution, especially in environmentally sensitive initiatives? What measures can be taken to ensure that the environmental and social impacts of a project are thoroughly evaluated before proceeding? And, how can we learn from projects like the "Arctic Challenge" to improve future initiatives aimed at raising awareness or addressing global issues?



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