Interview with project manager and mountain climber Bo Belvedere Christensen.

Project manager on the roof of the world

In 2002 Bo Belvedere Christensen arranged an expedition to an impassable and rarely visited area in Northeastern Nepal. The team had seen pictures of a mountain range with rows of sharp peaks and a challenging appearance, but the members of the expedition had no idea how they would reach the mountains: They had three different maps showing three different landscapes. When they gathered each morning, they became explorers on their way into unknown territory. Their mission was to scale a mountain located at the edge of the area in order to compare reality with what was depicted in the three maps. This would allow them to report the actual appearance of the landscape and plan a route to the mountain. 

”It was a completely unique experience: journeying through valleys with no trace of human existence. No one had ever walked there before me. Reaching the mountain and the attempt to find a way up. And finally, after three attempts, becoming the first person to set foot on the peak!”

For Bo Belvedere Christensen, the best experiences were the expeditions themselves, where he and the rest of his team had no idea what they would encounter. 

”The same goes for IT projects. I’m at my best when we’re on shaky ground and must build a foundation on which to move forward. It’s probably one of the reasons that I’m often involved in preparing business plans for new business areas.”

The calculated risk

For his mountain projects, Bo Belvedere Christensen minimizes the risk of potential crises with the help of meticulous advance planning. But in order to achieve success, mountain climbers must sometimes work with an element of calculated risk. This is where Bo’s competitive advantage as a project manager comes into play. That’s because he has transferred this way of thinking to his projects at work. 

”Whereas traditional project management often aims to minimize the probability of a risk occurring, I instead carefully weigh what the risk is and whether or not it could be worth taking, if it also offers possibilities that we would not otherwise have.”

This approach provides a broader risk analysis in that the project manager isn’t just considering how to avoid risk, but also what can be gained by it. The expedition to Northeastern Nepal is a good example of taking a certain degree of risk and acting on the knowledge one has. Bad weather spoiled the first two attempts to reach the peak. But Bo and his team saw a pattern in the storms – two days of clear weather followed by a storm – and decided to take a chance. And their decision proved to be the only correct thing to do. Bo explains:

”You can compare it with a project to bring a new product to market: Your knowledge is limited, and your competitors are poised to strike. In order to hit that window of opportunity, you might have to risk launching a product that isn’t 100% ready for market. It’s better to correct problems later than miss the chance to be first on the market.”

Know your limits

Bo Belvedere Christensen is walking along a mountain ridge in Norway together with a friend. He is 19 years old and has just started mountain climbing. He is eager to get to the top, so they struggle onward despite the snowstorm howling around them. Suddenly Bo hears a ’whooshing’ sound. And the next thing he knows, he’s buried under an avalanche. Miraculously, both men land with their heads above the snow. Bo struggles one hand free and slowly digs his way out of the compact snow. He then digs out his friend, who is still stuck.

The Norway climb is the only time Bo’s life has ever been in danger. Since the avalanche, he has always carefully considered the consequences whenever he sets foot on a mountain.

”People consider mountain climbing a high risk interest, and they think that I should be assigned to high risk projects. But I plan my projects down to the smallest detail in order to evaluate risk. On the mountain, the goal is to get to the top, but the goal is also to make it back down relatively safely,” explains the project manager.

And he knows what he is talking about. On an expedition to the world’s seventh-highest mountain the team’s highest camp was located just 300 meters from the peak. The peak could be reached in 4-5 hours, but a storm was raging. After a half hour in the camp, the team agreed that they could indeed reach the peak, but that they would very likely get frostbite and possibly lose a few fingertips and toes in the process. The peak wasn’t worth all that. 

Bo explains: 

”When I arrived home from that trip I felt that it was actually one of the best expeditions I had ever been on. I learned that I can say no when my limit has been reached, regardless of whether the expedition has cost me two years of planning and a great deal of money.”

Handling potential life-or-death crises on the mountain also brings perspective to his work as an IT project manager. 

”There’s a sense of equanimity because I know that the worst thing that can happen is that the project or company can run into problems. And that’s bad, but it’s not usually fatal.”

Project manager on the mountain

It typically takes approximately two years to plan an expedition of several months’ duration. Bo Belvedere Christensen began arranging this kind of expedition not long into his career as a mountain climber. Huge projects that involve everything from financial planning, sponsor acquisition and marketing plans to the amount of calories per climber per day and the number of matches needed per pack. 

”Successfully carrying out these huge expeditions gave me excellent training for project management. The expeditions demand an enormous amount of planning that can seem stressful and unmanageable, but for me the planning is almost as much fun as the expedition itself,” says Bo with a little smile.

Today Bo goes on expeditions for a total of 1-3 months each year, but his work as an IT project manager seldom suffers as a result.

”The mountain climbing hasn’t really proved to be a big obstacle to my career. I always plan my projects and choose my contracts so that they fit into my expedition schedule.”

Mount Everest

You can’t talk with a mountain climber without the subject of the world’s highest mountain making an appearance. And Bo Belvedere Christensen has Mount Everest in his sights: He wants to reach the top without the use of oxygen. No Dane has managed this achievement as yet. 

Bo has tried it twice without success. The first time, the mountain was crowded with commercial expeditions, all of which were trying to reach the top despite bad weather. 

”Eight people died. Others were injured by frostbite. My expedition managed to make it to 8,450 metres, but we ended up as a rescue team,” says Bo. 

The extreme conditions on the expeditions demand special attention on the part of the project manager. When Plan A doesn’t work, you normally go with Plan B. But on the mountains it’s sometimes necessary to bring in Plan E to complete a project.

”I take these experiences into my work as an IT project manager. When I draw up a project plan, I always have contingency plans – and contingency plans for my contingency plans.”

But there was no actual contingency plan in place for what happened with Bo’s second attempt to reach the peak: He had decided to get into the best shape of his life, but the massive amount of training resulted in a slipped disc and reduced strength in one leg. But he attacked the mountain regardless and reached 8,100 metres before he was forced to stop. 

He has not given up, though. The third time will hopefully be the charm when in the spring of 2013 Bo pursues his goal of ascending the entire fabled 8,850 metres of Mount Everest. 

Challenge Fourteen

Bo has a five-year plan that he calls Challenge Fourteen. The goal is to reach the top of the 14 highest mountains in the world – all of which boast heights of over 8,000 metres. But due to the short seasons, it is only possible to scale 2-3 of these mountains each year. In addition, the timeframe depends on whether the seasoned mountain climber can find sponsors, how the marketing will be done, coordination with existing projects, his career as a project manager, and more.

”It’s going to be complicated, challenging, and – I hardly dare say it – more dangerous than anything I’ve ever done before. As Gimli says in ”The Lord of the Rings”: Certainty of death, small chance of success... What are we waiting for?,” says Bo with a smile.

In order to increase his chances for success, Bo intends to make some of the climbs into ’double expeditions’, for example to the mountains Gasherbrum and K2. K2 has claimed many human lives, so to avoid ending up as another unfortunate statistic, it’s a good idea to begin such a steep climb in an acclimatized condition. 

Challenge Fourteen has been completed by only about 30 people.

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