Enter the White Space – A Business Interpretation of Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

The analyses and stories told about Amundsen and Scott’s fascinating and epic race to the South Pole are numerous. In this article I will try to make sense of the race in relation to the lessons derived in view of companies entering the white space[1] or aspiring to succeed with disruptive innovations. The lessons begin from using the holistic innovation management framework the Innovation Radar (IR) published in MIT Sloan Management Review in 2006[2].

The framework is used to compare Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions along twelve dimensions of a business system as depicted in the Innovation Radar figure below. The insights from the IR framework comparison are distilled into lessons of what Peter Drucker called the valid specifications behind a theory of a business[3]. The article will argue how a strong narrative like that of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole, the IR framework and the theory of business can be guiding for companies’ aspirations of reinventing themselves, and in being successful at managing change.

Figure 1: The Race to the South Pole and Innovation Radar Framework

The argument behind the Innovation Radar framework states that any innovation effort, whether at project, division or corporate level stands to benefit from taking a holistic perspective on innovation as opposed to only focusing on product or process innovation. Moreover, innovation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on a thorough examination and information gathering across the entire twelve dimensions of the business system. And that this information is used to focus on 3-6 dimensions, that are likely to be differentiators or even game changers from the competition[4]. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how this works in relation to a modern date interpretation of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole.

Consider the dimension offering. Amundsen was adamant about the offering to the team and investors that his expedition had the only goal of being first to the South Pole. Scott’s expedition on the other hand had at least three goals, namely scientific, honour to the British Empire and being the first to the South Pole. In this sense, Amundsen’s offering was much more focused than Scott’s.

Platform, the second dimension, denotes how to use prior investments to scale a business. Indeed, both Scott and Amundsen looked into former experience from Arctic polar expeditions (Sir Ernest Schakleton’s and others) and how to scale those platform lessons for their South Pole expeditions. But only Scott extended the platform knowledge into a serious bet on the technology platform related innovation solution for his expedition. Thus, Scott, who was fascinated with new technologies decided to utilize motorized sledges as introduced by Schakleton eight years earlier. Amundsen was worried that this new technology could be a decisive advantage for Scott, but decided not to focus on this solution at all.

Technology based platform innovation can be a game changer as well as a dead end street. Platform innovation has worked tremendously well for Apple’s i-Phone and Google’s Android. It has been a disaster for Nokia and BlackBerry. What seems to be the case is that very single narrowed technology focused platforms have a higher risk of creating a wrong trajectory than more open ones[5].

What seems to be the case is that very single narrowed technology focused platforms have a higher risk of creating a wrong trajectory than more open ones.

Both Scott and Amundsen had ‘customers’ in the sense, that they both needed sponsors to finance their expeditions. Scott’s sponsors were the British Government, The Geographical Royal Society, the shipyard who built his expedition ship Terra Nova as well as a number of private companies like Cadbury and Colman as food suppliers to Scott’s expedition. Amundsen’s financing came from the Norwegian King and government, his expedition ship was a reuse of Fridtjof Nansen’s purpose built polar ship Fram. What’s more important and instructive in regard to customers is that Scott spent half his time in the year up to the expedition raising money for a new ship, whereas Amundsen had his brother taking care of financing, and Amundsen didn’t compromise on the purpose – i.e. being first to the South Pole – to please sponsor/customers interests.

The dimension ‘customer experience’ is not really relevant in this context, as none of the sponsors were taking part in the expeditions. In moving to communication and branding of the expeditions, we know that Scott was focusing on this. Amundsen on the other hand didn’t only downplay this dimension, he was in fact deceptive in so far as his official story to sponsors and other’s was that he was preparing for an expedition to the North Pole. (Which company would reveal their next strategic innovation project today, or just think about industrial espionage and sensitive information). Former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove’s book about ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’ is a case in point[6].

In regard to the process dimension and the operational efficiency, the considerations done by Scott and Amundsen could hardly have been more different. Scott spend most of the year up to the actual expedition reading and debating with friends and peers at the Royal Geographic Society. Amundsen did the opposite in this regard. He was obsessed with testing all matters related to the expedition in practice. From clothes, sledges, food-depots, the topography of Antarctica equipment and personnel. Nothing was left to chance in Amundsen’s preparations in regard to the process of crossing the hostile environment of Antarctica. Amundsen piloted so to speak his expedition and thus had a solid foundation to change at scale. Steve Jobs’ testing of design and solutions like Apple stores is a clear analogy to this.

Value capture. This dimension relates to the return on investment of doing something. In present day’s business terminology we could also say the business model. In a stretched interpretation, it is clear that Scott also did his expedition in order to become promoted in the ranks of the British Naval system, whereas Amundsen had only focused his mission on being first to the South Pole.

The management of the expeditions was significantly different as well. Both Scott and Amundsen were without doubt outstanding explorers, and they only deserve recognition for their boldness and courage. Nevertheless, from a present time view on management and leadership, Amundsen’s approach to selecting his team shows the difference between what would be considered focused and not so. Scott’s team was primarily consisting of friends, hang-arounders with a taste for adventure and strictly speaking non-relevant people like photographers.

In addition, Amundsen opted for simple solutions over more advanced scientific available ones.

Amundsen only hired for skills. Moreover, all of Amundsen’s team members were trained relentlessly in mastering the functions necessary for the expedition such as walking on ski, and other relevant skills for crossing the Antarctica. In addition, Amundsen opted for simple solutions over more advanced scientific available ones, like for instance by using easy readable compasses, because he thought that this would be more reliable for the performance when the men would suffer from fatigue of the harsh climate and travelling, and yet they would still have to map out the next day’s route. Scott chose scientific advanced equipment, which was much heavier to transport and required much more intellectual focus and mental strain than a simple compass.

Supply chains – in particular food depots for travelling both forth and for coming back – turned out to be a tragic difference between the two expeditions. Scott, as we know, decided to use a combination of motorized sledges, horses and relative few dogs. He also planned for far less food depots along the route for the expedition and their return. Amundsen laid out seven food depots where Scott had two.

Amundsen only used dogs and part of the calculation was to use them as food on the return. Without going into detail, Scott and his men starved to death and never made it back from the South Pole.

Amundsen and his men, on the contrary, did not only make the return they had in fact gained weight from when they started out their journey to the South Pole. There have since the expeditions been several calculations regarding the food supply chains of the two teams, and most reckon, that even with just a few more food depots and dogs Scott and his team might have been able to survive.

Clearly, getting the supply chain right can still be a matter between death and survival for any business. Just think about the problems that rare earth metals caused a couple of years ago, and put entire industries like Wind Turbines and many others into jeopardy due to the global shortage of rare earth metals. Being innovative and getting the supply chain right have often proved to be a real game-changer. Dell disrupted the PC industry from this dimension, and industry leading corporations like IKEA and Apple are considered leaders within this dimension.

Clearly, getting the supply chain right can still be a matter between death and survival for any business.

Channel innovation is about how to find new ways of reaching out to customers or making shortcuts from what is considered the industry norm. In the days of the Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions the standard assumption was that the ‘channel’ for reaching the South Pole had to take its point of departure from Ross Island – Cape Evans. Amundsen, however, challenged this standard assumption. From studying the maps of Antarctica he decided to make his expedition’s departure from the completely unchartered territory of the Bay of Whales. This was literally one of two truly ‘white space innovations’ Amundsen made for his expedition. He knew it was a gamble, but it was by no means an unreasonable one. This is so because, taking-off from the Bay of Whales would save Amundsen’s expedition 60 miles, which was quite significant for saving time and effort in the climate conditions of Antarctica. In hindsight it was a calculated and prudent bet Amundsen made.

Scott never questioned the standard assumption that only the Ross Island area would make sense as entry point. Had he done so, he and his team might have saved their lives, as they were only days from making it back to camp. The relevance of entry point is just as valid today as it was 100 years ago. We just have to consider discussions like “What’s the Right Entry Point for Emerging Markets? Which was the topic for a seminar sponsored by Singapore’s Economic Development Board in 2012. Especially, many food and beverage companies have acquired locally cherished brands as entry points in order to crack into emerging markets[7].

The final dimension is partnership. As part of the meticulous preparations for his expedition, Amundsen went to Canada and lived with the indigenous people the Silkit Eskimos. In 1910 it was another standard assumption that people from ‘civilised countries’ like Great Britain and Norway couldn’t learn anything from indigenous people like Eskimos. Amundsen thought differently. By forming this ‘unnatural partnership’ with the Eskimos Amundsen learned most of what he had to know for his expedition. It was from this partnership he learned about how to use the sledge dogs, calculate their consumption of fodder, how to feed the dogs from seals and penguins and basically turn the hostile and inhospitable environment of the Antarctica into a resource instead of an enemy.

Combining the insights from partnering with the Silkit Eskimos with his own knowledge, preparations and leadership skills, Amundsen secured the success of his South Pole expedition. Edison’s partnership with J.P. Morgan is another great historical partnership that became a game changer in business history. The world’s 20 largest companies in the Consumer Good Forum (CGF) which combines more than a trillion USD in sales, and their partnership with the US Government to eliminate deforestation from supply chains by 2020 could be a game changer as well[8].

Lessons for today’s business

  • The Innovation Radar business system framework is one of the most powerful business model innovation tools for corporations in analysing and diagnosing their opportunities and limitations from a holistic perspective.
  • To succeed with game changing strategies often require major organizational turnarounds. Woven into a narrative from outside the industry, corporations can make it easier to convey their message as an opportunity, instead of it having perceived as a threat to the existing order and privileges within the organization.
  • Factor complementaries are still relatively overlooked in corporate strategy. The term refers to the reliance that develops between organizations whose activities work in dynamic combination with each other. Strong complementors can have a significant positive effect on the overall industry. The winning potential of network partnerships is for example well documented throughout history, yet as a vehicle for growth strategy still often succumbed to the two more traditional strategies of cost and differentiation.
  • Technology leadership as a stand-alone strategy is seldom a sufficient as a winning formula for where to play and where to win[9].
  • In the words of Peter Drucker, to create a valid theory of a business the assumptions about environment, mission, and core competencies must fit reality. The mission has to clear about what is considered meaningful results, and it has to be known throughout the organization. And the assumptions define core competencies where the organization must prevail in order to maintain leadership.

By Jørn Bang Andersen

About the Author

Jørn Bang Andersen is a Nordic and European thought leader from Denmark and he is considered an international expert on innovation and economic growth. He has served on the World Economic Forum’s panel on the Nordic Growth Model (2011) and been a contributor to The Economist’s article on ‘The Nordic Countries – The Next Supermodel’ (2013). Jørn is European Director to Clareo Partners.




[1] M. W. Johnson, “Seizing the White Space”. (Harvard Business Press, 2010). 3-20

[2] M. Sawhney, R. C. Wolcott and I. Arroniz, “The 12 Different Ways for Companies to Innovate”, MIT Sloan Management Review, April 01, 2006; and J.Chen and M. Sawhney, “An Empirically Validated Framework For Measuring Business Innovation”, November 19, 2012 SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2178114

[3] P.F. Drucker, ”Managing in a Time of Great Change”. (Harvard Business Press, 2009) 8-12

[4] R. C. Wolcott and M. J. Lippitz, “Grow From Within”. (Wiley and Sons, 2010).

[5] SEE J.B. Andersen, “Nokia’s Rise and Fall”, March 2, 2011, www.innovationmanagement.se./; and N. Vitalari and H. Shaugnessy, “The Elastic Enteprise” (Telemachus Press, 2012)

[6] A. Grove, “Only the Paranoid Survive”, Random House, USA

[7] S. Anthony, ”Innovation in Emerging Markets”, Havard Business Blog, March 2012

[8] J. Clay, ”Cross-sector partnership on deforestation could be game changing”, The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, August 9, 2012

[9] A.G. Lafley and R. L. Martin, Playing To Win – How Strategy Really Works, (Harvard Business Review, 2013)

Photo: opened concrete wall in form of a keyhole from shutterstock.com