The Titanic sank 100 years ago on April 15, 2012. And yet, given the press, it seems like it sunk yesterday. For many years, speakers at project management gatherings have used this most unfortunate disaster to highlight lessons learned we could apply to our projects; and, a vast majority of these lessons had to do with risk management, and rightfully so.
That said, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown a bit weary reading these project lessons learned from this event; that is, until my boss, John Elsey, ESI’s president, sent me a link to a white paper on the subject authored by the head of R&D for the Forum Corporation, a sales and leadership training and consulting company. (Full disclosure: Forum is a wholly owned subsidiary of Informa PLC, ESI’s parent company; and, Forum’s head reports to John).
In her highly readable and engaging paper, Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship, Jocelyn R. Davis, weaves the harrowing tale of that fateful night with the three “leadership traps” that often “sink” a company in times of crisis: namely, lack of clarity, unity and agility. She provides powerful examples of how the Titanic’s leadership, and in particular its Captain, missed all three that night, resulting in the deaths of 2,223 people (only 706 survived).
But the one fact that I had never read about, and the one I believe was at the root of the fatal shipwreck which Ms Davis brings forward was the finding that Captain Smith wanted to reach New York in record time. Why? It’s anyone’s guess. He might have pictured himself atop a float being carried down the “Canyon of Heroes,” Lower Broadway in New York City, in a ticker-tape parade. Or maybe, he had a huge bonus riding on beating the published schedule. Whatever the reason, he ordered his men to fire up two more boilers to increase the Titanic’s speed but did not put more resources looking out for icebergs along the way. In other words, he assumed an enormous amount of risk to meet his objective, but had no mitigation plan in place to deal with it.
If you’re going to go faster through dangerous waters, wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to have more of your staff looking out for icebergs? Sadly, he did not do so.
Sound familiar? The “boss” wants the project done “faster” but will not authorize the needed extra resources to make it happen. The boss reverts to the “just do it” platitudes and cliches that so many leaders succumb to hoping these alone will motivate the staff. Sure, we all need a surge capacity every now and then, but “smart” leaders know if they want to shrink time, there’s a cost of doing so. Too bad the poor passengers of the Titanic had to pay it.
By the way, if you would like to see a restrospective on the ship watch this short You Tube video. That said, I just can’t seem to get that Celine Dion song out of my head.