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 the mainly strove
Their ship on mountains with 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.