Donner PartyOn this date in 1846 the Donner Party was preparing to set out for the last stretch to California the next day. At this point they had suffered more privation than most pioneers had. Unfortunately, the sufferings would only get worse as the party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by snow and some members resorted to cannibalism to survive. Success and failure can depend on so little difference.

But on that night the party was hopeful. They had been through so much and there was just a little farther to go (approximately 100 miles). They were doomed by a few common misconceptions:

  1. We’ve been through so much already, the best is yet to come. This is also expressed as “we’ve seen the really bad, it can’t get worst!”
  2. Just a little more effort and we have it made.
  3. If we just try harder, we’ll be successful.

The Donner party resulted in tragedy because they failed to follow a few simple rules:

  • Have a plan based on facts;
  • Have an experienced guide;
  • Plan for failure (Murphy is always in attendance); and
  • Have a Plan B (and C, D, etc.) and be willing to use them.

The Donner party followed a route laid out by Lansford W. Hastings who never actually tried to take wagons along the route – in fact, he described the route before he ever traveled it.

The Donner party never had an experienced guide with them instead choosing members of the party who never had been west but was liked by everyone.

The Donner party never planned to be on the trail beyond October – they were going to reach Sutter’s Fort by then. No one expected failure. Remember that Murphy was an optimist?

There were alternate routes which were well traveled and known which some of the initial members of the Donner party took but the remainder stayed fixed on their original plan. One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. The same is true for following your original plan when it’s become apparent that the facts don’t match the assumptions the plan was based on. In business this is often an ego project – senior management have invested so much of their ego in a project that they can’t admit failure. Failure occurs in spite of your ego.

The result will be recriminations and cannibalism – literally or figuratively.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.