Lately I’ve been seeking out articles and watching shows about Sir John Franklin’s mysterious last mission to find the Northwest Passage (The Franklin Expedition), which embarked in 1845. (This is quite an un-Amy-like pursuit, for those of you meeting me today).  

Perhaps it’s captivating because there are so few true unknowns anymore. Or perhaps it’s because this one is a real doozy. 

On paper, everyone, from the shipwrights to the crew to the captain, thought they’d done everything they could to make this expedition a success. They learned from previous failed missions to the Antarctic; they knew when the ice might make any semblance of a passage, well, unpassage-able. They knew they’d be gone a good long while and packed accordingly with vast stores of food using the latest technology (tins!) – and, importantly, their ships were more advanced than any that had made the journey before. 

But – *spoiler alert* – 

They didn’t find the passage. And none of them came home.  

From what we do know, they didn’t make it very far before they had to abandon their frozen-in ships, Erebus and Terror, and set off through the wilderness on foot. Winter in the Antarctic, you might have guessed, is brutal and unrelenting. Frostbite, hypothermia, scurvy (how do you keep citrus available on a ship that’s sailing in perpetual winter?) and, eventually, starvation claimed the lives of all 129 men. What remains is an attempt to piece together their last steps, how they lived and died, with very little left behind to go on. 

Now bear with me for the metaphor; the stakes are, admittedly, slightly lower in most of our cases.  

But do you ever feel like you get halfway through your own ‘expeditions’ only to end up stuck? You thought you did everything right – you charted the perfect course, got the best shipmates, gathered and stored heaps of coffee and biscuits to see you through several winters.  

You’re moving along at a clip, salty wind in your hair. But then, the ice cracks up against your hull. And you think to yourself, ‘Huh. That’s a worry.’  

Not only that, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go from here – except to scramble about on the ice floes and hope you can store enough tinned meat in your pockets to keep you walking forward on what is now an uncertain path. Instead of the welcoming sight of Alaska and Russia (🤔) port and starboard, you’re staring ahead at a blank horizon, trying to separate land from sky. 

Hey, it can happen to the best of us… 

But part of the reason this story is so tragic, is it really does feel like there was a solid Plan A. 

So, with hindsight, maybe the only thing Sir John Franklin was missing was a Plan B. And a Plan C. And, let’s be real, a Plan D. 

And, AND, the humility to make the right decisions at the right time. Was there was a moment when Sir John said to himself, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time to give up the dream of calling this route the Franklin Passage and turn back’? Or, once the point of no return was reached, maybe a collective brainstorm, where the trusted leaders were consulted for their opinions about how best to ration food, keep warm, stay alive? Did anyone reach out to the local Inuit populations to understand how best to hunt, using animals for not just food but insulating clothing? 

We’ll never know, I guess. But for our own expeditions, we have an opportunity to make contingency plans. Plan A might be your best – but it also usually relies on a lot of things going just right to succeed.  

So, how do your Plans B-Z look for the next few years? Have you tested the waters, adjusted your course and tested again? Or do you feel like you’re drifting straight into the waters where there be sea monsters? 

Ultimately a plan (or several) is the only agency we have in shaping our hopes and dreams for the future. Not just in life, but also as we grapple with unforeseen economic realities in the fundraising world. The route may seem clear and straightforward, but icebergs (or viruses or global conflicts) rarely take note of our carefully crafted Gantt charts.  

All we can really do is prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and along the way, watch, learn and adapt.  

Test your sails and booms and anchors – and test them again. Use the wisdom of your shipmates when the seas get choppy.  

Don’t panic when the wind makes you veer off course, killer whales approach or narwhals swim too close.  

Just dig out Plan B and see how far it gets you. The good news is that Plan C is waiting in the wings if B is sunk.