Theodore Roosevelt, famous for reviewing the attempts by the French to build the Panama Canal said of the project, “Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience." While this statement isn’t true of every goal or milestone tackled by today’s management world, it definitely fits. And, Roosevelt learned a lot from the French failures.
The French attempts were the vision of businessman Ferdinand de Lesseps in the 1880s who wanted to call the canal “La Grande Tranchee" (the great trench). He thought the perfect design was already behind the French who were successful when constructing the Suez Canal. The problems started out relatively early with no risk management plan (or even blueprints) but de Lesseps charged forward anyway.
Mountain, jungles and a challenging terrain didn’t seem to scare de Lesseps’ efforts and by 1883, 20,000 workers only achieved a 10th of the 2,000,000 cubic meters of excavation work that needed to be completed. They were plagued with landslides by the lack of a good risk management plan. Workers piled dirt on each side of the excavation site which caused the muddy landscape to fall back into the trench, much to the dismay of the workers.
The year 1884 brought even more disaster with yellow fever and each day approximately 200 workers lost their lives to the contagious disease. By 1889, de Lesseps’ dream was trashed when additional funds couldn’t be raised and the project was abandoned.
In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became interested in completing the canal (mostly because the U.S. Navy would be king of two oceans via the canal access). This time risk management was used, although it may not have been called “risk" management. This time the project had Walter Reed who was able to eradicate Yellow Fever by ridding the project area, worker’s dwellings and eating areas of the deadly mosquito, Stegomyia fasciata.
The U.S. canal efforts fell to many supervisors including various engineers and project leaders. One project leader, John Stevens, determined the best course of action would be to stop excavating all together while an infrastructure was built, so laborers on the project could work faster and more efficiently. By 1907, Army Colonel George W. Goethals was in charge and in 1914, the first ship, the Cristobal maneuvered through the canal with ease.
Although the Panama Canal took years of ideas and visions, the poor planning, disease, mud and landslides that plagued the French was finally overcome. Here, the canal was a success by those who stepped back and attacked the risks the French faced, and prioritized risks using good forethought. This is something all project managers must do to excel in any project set before them. “Digging" into a project without a scope and plan will turn your projects into a “Panama" disaster; avoid this by digging in and exploring risks first.