"Willing To Risk Death Daily. Orphans Preferred"

By Mike Aucoin

"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders."

So started the ad in a California newspaper, but the best was yet to come...

"Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

The ad was not for a kamikaze bike courier service... not for the Olympic team for some sadistic extreme sport... not even for employees of a bizarre hybrid Razor Scooter dot com business.

The year was 1860 and riders were needed for the Pony Express.

The Pony Express is probably the most memorable and enduring image of the critical path of a project. In what ways can this endeavor from history be relevant to the critical path on your project today?

Back in 1860, the United States consisted of two settled areas: everything east of, say, Kansas City, and California. Many who lived in California had once lived in the East and longed for news from back home, including news about impending war that would pit the North against the South.

But news traveled slowly: 30 days by ship from New York to San Francisco around South America, or 23 days by stage coach.

Leaders in the North were also interested in California. Afraid that their isolation would cause California, and its gold, to side with the Confederacy, Union leaders sought to strengthen ties with the West. Most people knew that the distance would eventually be bridged by the telegraph and the railroad, but the war wouldn't wait for those developments.

Into this picture came entrepreneurs who proposed what was at the time a miraculous feat: express mail service by horse from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in the unheard-of time of 10 days!

In the short span of two months, the entrepreneurs put together a network of stations along the trail, working in places that had no previous trails or facilities. Organizing this project was an enormous undertaking, assembling 156 stations, 120 riders, 400 horses and hundreds of employees. The initial ride in April, 1860 drew a level of excitement and interest not unlike that seen for the early moon launches.

The operation of the Pony Express was an amazing accomplishment. It offered express mail delivery throughout the year with continuous day and night operation. New riders took over every 75 to 100 miles and riders got a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles.

As with many other critical paths, the Pony Express had its stories of heroics. In July, 1861, a riderless horse came running into the station at Sacramento. The stationmaster said to a young boy nearby that the rider was probably the victim of an Indian attack.

"Let me take the mail", the small boy pleaded. "I know these parts and I can ride with the best of them!" With that, 11 year old Broncho Charlie Miller mounted the horse and became the youngest rider for the Pony Express.

The Pony Express was short-lived and a financial failure. It lasted for only a year-and-a-half until the transcontinental telegraph line was completed. The entrepreneurs originally hoped the Pony Express would draw so much public interest that they would win a government contract for express mail delivery. They didn't win the contract, and took a half-million dollar beating, but the Pony Express captured the hearts and imagination of people all over the world.

What lessons does the Pony Express offer for your project?
  • A critical path is important - It seems trivial to say this, but in many organizations, critical path tasks don't get the respect they deserve. Just like the impact of the Pony Express on the Civil War, look at the broader business and even political issues involved in not succeeding on your critical path. Business success or failure is often determined on the critical path.

  • A critical path task is hard work - If it was easy, it probably wouldn't be on the critical path. Make sure your team has the tools and resources they need so they are not distracted by unimportant matters. Pony Express riders had some of the best horses around and they got fresh mounts frequently. And make sure that there is plenty of sustenance around, particularly emotional sustenance to sustain the creative efforts.

  • Take care of the riders - In many organizations the experts or the most productive individuals are so valuable that they never get time off the critical path tasks. Nobody can ride the critical path indefinitely. Set up systems for people to take turns on critical path tasks and get some down time afterward.

  • Leverage the vision - The image of the lone rider speedily delivering news through the night, in the snow, while avoiding attacks, is very powerful. What vision can your organization portray for the critical path to capture the hearts and imagination of everyone associated with your project?
Perhaps, if you are successful, the memory of your critical path will be as enduring and powerful as that of the rider for the Pony Express.

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