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Learning through adversity: lessons from surviving the Antarctic

Environmental scientist and explorer Tim Jarvis OAM crossed Antarctica from one side to the other to retrace the expedition Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team completed in 1913, which has been described as the most impressive survival story of all time. 

Surviving a treacherous journey through sea, snow and ice might sound like the stuff movies are made of, but Jarvis said Shackleton’s expedition, and his recreation of that expedition, has a lot more to do with the water sector than first meets the eye. 

Presenting at Ozwater’21, Jarvis shared his insights into how exploration involves lessons in managing change, overcoming problems and instilling a common sense of purpose within a team, all crucial to the future success of water businesses. 

“Shackleton was a constant manager of change. He embraced it. This meant a complete rethink of the original vision of the journey. The mission they set out to achieve changed, but the vision his team shared was still intact,” he said. 

“Many industries can identify with this. The vision for the water industry is to provide clean drinking water for everybody. But the mission, the means by which that vision is going to be achieved, has to fundamentally change. 

“We can’t keep looking for new supply solutions for our water needs; we have to have some serious conversations about demand. We need to consider new ways of creating the energy that moves all this water around, too.”

Jarvis said Shackleton was also a pragmatic optimist, which is an important quality to have when facing adversity.

“He told it like it was. We all know the issues the water industry is now facing — ageing infrastructure, increased demand, environmental issues, together with a transitioning workforce. There are all kinds of changes that are coming, but we must remain optimistic,” he said. 

“Shackleton was also emotionally intelligent. He knew who he was and that everybody in his team was motivated by different things.”

Jarvis said that if you want to draw a team together with a sense of common purpose, you’ve got to understand that they are all motivated by slightly different things. 

“We need to keep this in mind when trying to move the water sector forward. Some people like to do things the old way, some people are determined to do things differently. Some people are driven by moral reasons, others are interested in the technology of the future,” he said.

“We need to bring everybody along.”

Another key learning from his explorations is the principle of backwards mapping, which helps to maintain a clear focus on what’s important to achieving a specific goal. 

“If you have a goal and you work backwards from what you are trying to achieve to get the job done: the resources, people, skills and expertise,” he said. 

“It’s called backwards mapping; you understand what you need to achieve and you move backwards from that outcome, keeping an eye on the things you know you need to get done.”

Jarvis said it’s also crucial to ensure you’ve got the right people for the job. 

“Shackleton framed things in a way that attracted people who were up for the challenge. In teams, I look for people who have two types of intelligence: convergent and divergent,” he said. 

“Convergent intelligence involves technical ability, the ability to solve problems quickly. But in life, problems do not manifest in a convenient, sequential fashion. They manifest as a roadblock around which you need to try and navigate. 

“You need to have the capacity for lateral thinking. You must have the creativity to step outside the box and think your way around the problem.”

While Jarvis probably won’t be signing up to attempt the expedition again anytime soon, he said it taught him a lot about change and ensuring the vision stays central to all decisions being made, which is particularly important for the water sector. 

“In an expedition, whether you're heading into an endless white horizon, or the horizon of the ocean in a small boat, the same learning applies,” he said. 

“Change is coming. And we need to break down the enormous challenges facing the sector into manageable pieces.”