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The Man who made Everest Happen: An Unsung Hero of Project Management

Few people these days remember the name John Hunt. If you’re a project manager, even if you’re the best out there, one of the first things you learn is not to expect to be bathed in glory every time you get things right. When a project’s come in on target and within budget, the chances are that it’ll be the creatives and the developers – and the mountaineers – who are the first to receive high fives from the client. The reality – as you very well know (even if the client doesn’t) is that without your work, the project quite possibly would barely have left basecamp!

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Most of us have heard of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing and it’s of course only right that we mark the 60th anniversary of their achievement. If you’ve got any interest in how best to go about getting things done however, spare a thought for the lesser-known figure of Brigadier Sir John Hunt (later Lord Hunt), the expedition leader and organiser. Should he be regarded as a model for project managers? This was of course an era largely untouched by the reams of project management jargon we have today. The physical feat was one thing but it’s also worth considering what was Hunt was faced with from a purely organizational point of view to fully appreciate the magnitude of the achievement.

Winning Over the Team Members After a ‘Controversial’ Selection Process.

Hunt wasn’t the first choice as leader. The expedition backers, the Royal Geographical Society had in 1952 appointed a popular figure, Eric Shipton as leader of their Everest project. In an initial exploratory expedition of that year however, Shipton was deemed to be not up to the job by the Society. He was removed from his position and replaced by Hunt – much to the consternation and objections of the climbers – including Hillary. Hunt effectively won them over through a combination of personality and obvious organisational skills.

The ultimate time constraint with no margin for error.

The pressures were twofold. The goal was to be the first team to reach the Everest summit. A year earlier a Swiss team had come within 600m of achieving this before having to turn back. A return visit had been planned for 1954. The French were also planning an expedition. Essentially, a race was on. If Hunt’s team had failed in 1953, another team would almost certainly have got there first. Climbing Everest is now almost routine in nature but 60 years ago without the benefit of satellite weather imaging, deciding exactly when to make an assault on the top was quite literally a matter of life and death. The final say on when to mount the assault was with Hunt. Being overly cautious would mean that any opportunity would be missed entirely. Reading the weather wrongly could potentially leave your team stranded for too long in the ‘death zone’. It was tight. The expedition reached a stage where it was ready to push for the summit on May 21. It was recognized that the monsoon, whose heavy snows would prohibit climbing, could arrive as early as June 1.

Professional planning.

One feature of Hunt’s leadership was the rejection of the rather amateurish approach of his predecessors. Even 60 years on, it’s still recognised that there’s a window of just three months between March and June when it’s possible to mount an ascent. Any earlier in the year and it’s still essentially winter. Any later and you’re into heavy snowfall season. On being appointed leader in the Summer of 1952 Hunt set to work on meticulous planning. Training was conducted in the Alps throughout 1952. The project was embarked upon more in the fashion of a military expedition rather than the ‘mountaineering club outing’ feel of previous attempts.

Climbing Everest in 1953 took more than just mountaineering skills

Climbing Everest in 1953 took more than just mountaineering skills

Management of Human Resources.

This wasn’t a case of few guys heading off with rucksacks. 15 mountaineers and over 360 porters had to be coordinated. At the outset, he rejected the idea of a flight from London to India – preferring a four-week sea passage in order that the team could acclimatize to each other in close quarters. He also deliberately ruled himself out of any final assault parties so as to avoid the suggestion that any decisions made were with ‘personal glory’ in mind.

Recent problems between local sherpas and foreign mountaineers on Everest have showed that it’s vital to work as a team, to use the skills of all involved – without prejudice. Many think that the first person on top of Everest was Edmond Hillary – but when push came to shove it seems that it was probably Sherpa Tenzig who actually got there first; and the first thing he did was pull Hillary up too.

Building In Flexibility.

Hunt’s project management allowed for contingencies. Two mountaineers, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans were supposed to be the first men to reach the top. However when Evans was overcome with exhaustion just 101 metres from the goal, the two men had to turn back. Hunt’s two-pronged approach meant that Hillary and Tenzing were on hand to mount an assault themselves.

Management of Knowledge.

Hunt recognized that he was building on the achievements of others. In a fine example of ‘knowledge transfer’, he had liaised in detail with leaders of the earlier Swiss expedition and had even approached their suppliers (with the help of a Swiss contact) to ensure that his team had the same state of the art kits and oxygen supplies as the earlier expedition.

The next time you hear someone refer to a task as a ‘mountain to climb’, it’s worth giving thought to those who were involved in the ‘real deal’ 60 years ago.

John Hunt: The Management Brains Behind the 1953 Everest Ascent

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