Franklin’s failed expedition to the Northwest Passage in the 1840s teaches us a lot about organisations and resilience.

I spent some time on holiday this summer learning ‘Lord Franklin’, the 19th century English song made popular in the 1960s by Martin Carthy and by Pentangle. The English love their heroic failures, and Captain John Franklin was one of the great heroic failures of the 19th century. In 1845 he took two British Navy ships, Erebus and Terror, and more than 120 officers and men, to try to navigate the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ships were trapped in the ice and all of the men died.

As the song puts it,

Through cruel hardships they mainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice was drove
Only the Eskimo in his skin canoe
Was the only one, that ever came through.

When he disappeared, the Navy sent search parties and offered a huge reward. There were searches by others as well, more than 40 in all. Later, statues of Franklin were raised in his home town of Spalding and in central London. The passage was successfully navigated by boat 60 years later by Amundsen, brought up on stories of Franklin’s doomed voyage. The contrasting stories of the success of one and the failure of the other tell us quite a lot about how organisations can use resilience to manage complex and unpredictable environments.

Technology as hubris

Sir John Franklin was not incompetent. He was experienced in sailing in the “high latitudes,” and had explored the northerly coast of the Americas in two separate expeditions in the 1820s. And the British navy was almost at the height of its power, and it fitted out the vessels to cope with the Arctic; for example, hot water from the engine rooms was pumped around the living quarters to warm them. They also ensured that they would not have to rely on finding food on the voyage by stocking enough food to last five years, using the recently invented tins. This turned out to be technology as hubris.

The tins were early versions, and the lead used in their construction may have poisoned the crew from the start of the voyage. Some died even before they reached the north-west passage. The ships were large, by Arctic standards, and needed relatively deep water, which froze early. The expedition was unlucky with the weather (later research showed that the years of the expedition, when the boats were frozen in, were unusually cold.)

A failure of learning

But they created their own mistakes. They declined to talk to the Eskimo, whom they regarded as savages. Nor did they learn to build igloos, or to trap or hunt seals, even when their rations were exhausted and some resorted to cannibalism in the face of starvation. This was probably just as well, as far as the local Eskimo population was concerned, since even the depleted expedition was too large for the local ecosystem to sustain. The last of the crew abandoned the ships two years after they were frozen in; some were seen heading south as late as 1850 in a doomed attempt to reach a trading post a few hundred miles away. Franklin himself had died quite early on, in 1847.

As a child, Amundsen was fascinated by Franklin’s failure. He designed his own expedition to the north-west passage on fundamentally different principles. He travelled light. He acquired a shallow bottomed boat  designed for Arctic waters, and hired a small crew of technical specialists, small enough to survive off the land over the winter. When winter came, and they were frozen in, near the same Eskimo settlement where Franklin’s expedition had come to grief, they moored and made contact with the Eskimo. During the winters, Amundsen worked hard to learn local skills, such as building igloos and sledding with dogs. (He became so preoccupied with this that he delayed his departure when the weather broke, irritating the crew).

The rest is history. They arrived at Nome, on the Pacific coast, in August 1906.

The coming 21st century organisation

Of course, the moral is so obvious that it is almost not worth saying: that in the face of large complex systems, it is better to travel light, at a scale that enables resilience, to listen to local knowledge, and to be able to respond to changing circumstances, rather than trying to outwit it through the application of large scale technology – especially when that technology is incompletely understood. To spell this out: had Amundsen’s crew encountered the extreme weather of Franklin’s expedition, and been frozen in for two years, they would have been able to live off the land until the ice broke, and without threatening the livelihoods of the local Inuit population.

When I first developed this story, as part of a presentation to Culture Northwest a few years ago, I went on to make a comparison between the 20th century corporation, which still believes that it can control its environment, and the coming organisation, which understands that it needs to tread lightly on the world, to test its external environment for changes, and to respond by adapting accordingly.

The British Army found itself making this transition in moving from the Cold War to “peacekeeping” intervention in the 1990s. Whatever one’s moral views of such intervention, it takes a different type of command structure and a different type of training. As Air Vice Marshal Brian Burridge put it, while he was at the Defence Academy at Shrivenham,

Then, there was this huge battle space and we knew just about everything about it … All one had to do was adhere to the tactical doctrine that flowed from Nato’s general defence plans. I was akin to second violin in a symphony orchestra.
These days, I have to play jazz.       .

In this transition, authority inevitably gets pushed down the organisation and away from the centre, and principles of practice, or guiding principles, become more important than instructions. So maybe there’s a further question here, as to whether it’s possible for large organisations to manage for resilience without deconstructing themselves into smaller organisations. And if this is the case, there is a question beyond it: how will we achieve the scale we need to adapt quickly enough to the resource and climate change shocks which are surely coming?

The image is of a Victorian painting of Franklin dying by his boat, which hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. It is used here with thanks.