Skip to main content.

Book review: Grant Avery, Project Management, Denial and the Death Zone

Grant Avery, Project Management, Denial and the Death Zone

This book review by Dr Dale Cooper was published in RiskPost, the newsletter of RiskNZ (formerly the New Zealand Society for Risk Management), in March 2016.


Grant Avery has written a fascinating book. It makes interesting and entertaining reading, as well as providing insights into aspects of managing risk in projects that we rarely think about in depth.

The book contains many stories about individuals and expeditions – for expeditions think projects – in Antarctica and on Mount Everest. They are based on the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration from the late 1800s to the early 1900s (Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton and others), successful and less successful expeditions on Everest and Grant’s own experience in Antarctica as a manager and field worker at New Zealand’s Scott Base and a member of international search and rescue teams. They are tales of extraordinary deeds, both successes and failures, in very inhospitable places where survival itself takes effort, quite apart from achieving any scientific or other objectives.

The stories are interesting in themselves, but Grant uses them to illustrate important points about projects and managing risk. He begins with risk homeostasis, the notion that as capabilities increase so too does risk appetite, with the result that the level of risk does not change much. A well-known example is that of safer driving courses, where the skills of course graduates increase and yet so too does their accident rate – increasing confidence means they take more risks. In terms of the Everest expeditions, as climbing skills increased, equipment became better, logistics became more efficient, more knowledge became available and expedition planning improved, people did not climb safer but instead they climbed higher. Grant makes similar points about activities in the Antarctic, including some in which he was involved personally.

In the context of project management, many of us are familiar with the time-cost-quality triangle and the trade-offs associated with it. Grant discusses the CORA triangle of capabilities, outcomes and risk appetite, where balancing the three elements becomes particularly important as project complexity increases. He points to the need for a dramatic change in risk management culture if increased capabilities are not to lead to an associated increase in risk appetite and poorer outcomes. On Everest, that step change in culture was driven by the commercialisation of climbing, with death rates of about one climber for every four who reached the summit, a rate that had been consistent through much of the twentieth century, falling to about one or two per hundred over the past 20 years as professional companies managed their risk appetite better and drove down the risks they took.

From this discussion Grant derives a set of tips for managing risk appetite in projects. Many of these centre on making risk appetite more visible and more explicit, so everyone in the project understands what is and is not tolerable and where the boundaries lie. This is a slightly different focus from that in many texts on managing risk in projects, and a valuable extension of the communication and consultation step that is often talked about by risk managers and project managers but rarely implemented as urgently or thoroughly as it might be in practice.

Closely related to risk homeostasis and the CORA triangle is the concept of narcissism, which manifests itself in the denial of limitations, a failure to understand that things could go wrong and an inappropriate prioritisation of objectives over risk. The propensity for taking risk is particularly critical in the ‘death zone’, whether above 26,000 feet on Everest where there is insufficient oxygen to sustain life, or in a highly complex project where failure is inevitable without extraordinary skills, effort and support. Grant provides a list of common symptoms that indicate a project may be in the death zone, as well as guidelines for reducing the risk. The most powerful of these guidelines is very simple, ‘Don’t go there’, but not every project manager has that choice.

The final chapters of the book deal with organisational, leadership, governance and cultural matters for projects, all linked to stories from the Antarctic and Everest. These chapters will be particularly valuable to senior executives and governance committees with project oversight responsibilities, and for project directors as they seek to develop leadership styles and organisational processes best suited for large and complex projects.

A selection of practical templates and other free material is available from the publisher’s web site.

I strongly recommend this book. Climbers and adventurers, and would-be adventurers in your armchairs, you’ll find the stories full of interest, recounted vividly by someone who has experienced similar conditions himself. Project managers and risk managers, you’ll see projects and risk from a new perspective, one that will make you think differently about how you organise and plan your projects. And you’ll all have a great read.

Dr Dale F Cooper, February 2016

Publication details

Grant Avery, Project Management, Denial and the Death Zone: Lessons from Everest and Antarctica (with a foreword by Sir Ranulph Fiennes), J. Ross Publishing, Plantation FL, 2016, ISBN 978-1-60427-119-5.