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The Titanic Disaster – Project management over the last 106 years

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Project Management has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last 106 years – but many of the problems encountered are just the same.  Are you, as a project manager, better at dealing with them? Mark Kozak-Holland explained using the illustration of the Titanic.
Everyone knows that the Titanic hit an iceberg and went down, with enormous loss of life. We all think “that couldn’t happen again, we’ve learnt the lessons” but every day, in less famous ways, with (usually) less loss of life, projects encounter the same problems and sometimes the project managers make the same compromises.  It’s Kozak-Holland’s favourite case study, and he talks about many famous disasters.
Circumstances compromised the integrity of the project:

  1. The project was driven by marketing.  The White Star line (who operated the Olympic and Titanic) were being out-competed by Cunard Line and needed a big splash to win business back.  They started marketing almost before the design was completed. They promised more than was safe.  They then interfered with experts who should have known better, and arm-twisted to get their way.  The Business Case said a payback period on each ship of 2 years, which is incredible and suggests that corners would ultimately be cut even though the class of ships was presented as “no expense spared”.  No expense spared on luxury, but plenty of compromises on safety.
  2. The Client (White Star Line) and Supplier (Harland & Wolff Shipbuilders) were too close to each other personally and worked around the contract.  Ship commissioners 100 years later say that the contracts themselves are broadly the same, but the Olympic and Titanic ships (and a proposed third one, Gigantic) represented a new future for both companies, so chief executives on both sides compromised the project (cutting corners on safety in order to allow better views and a better dining experience for first class passengers) and operations (demanding faster speed in spite of the dangers of icebergs).

  3. Lessons were not learnt from previous accidents and near-misses.  The first ship, Olympic, suffered a number of accidents which not only don’t appear to have changed practice, but which also severely compromised the Titanic.  Parts were stripped from the Titanic to keep the Olympic ferrying passengers and bringing in funds.  When the Titanic’s build was delayed, the Sea Trials were simply skipped to maintain the launch date.  This in spite of modifications to the design to increase capacity which would have changed the handling characteristics.  The Captain of the Titanic on its fateful maiden voyage was distrustful of technology and relied on his own gut instinct too much – he didn’t need anyone else to tell him when ice bergs were near, especially this new-fangled Marconi company.  Mariners fudged tests to report acceptable results.

  4. The senior people believed their own rhetoric that the Olympic and Titanic were unsinkable.  The original design probably was unsinkable, but modifications compromised this and they didn’t see it.  On the occasion of grinding over an ice shelf, the Captain decided to carry on forwards to use it as a marketing opportunity, rather than reverse off to minimise damage, or (safest) call for help.

  5. Lessons weren’t learnt after the event.  The British government had too much at stake to allow either White Star or Harland & Wolff to fold, so the judicial review found that no one was really to blame, and decreed that cases for negligence could only be brought in USA, which was impossible for most families affected. White Star CEO Bruce Ismay took steps to make sure that the US inquiry was misled by coaching his surviving officers and crew into recalling a different version of events and bamboozling the inquirers with "Mariner-speak", resulting in an inconclusive result there too.

How is this relevant today?

  • Are your projects driven by the marketing and PR? Has someone already promised something, impossible within your budget, but you now have to fudge the results so they can claim victory?
  • Do clients change the specification and then expect you to magically finish on time and on budget but to a new specification? How successful are your protests?
  • When the specification changes, do the assumptions change too, or do the project sponsors keep on saying that the project is “unsinkable” in spite of changes which compromise resilience and a budget and timeframe that means you have to cut corners?
  • Does anyone read and make use of lessons learnt? Is the post-implementation wrap-up a whitewash?

Kozak-Holland says very little has changed. The obstacles haven’t changed. And many of the responses of project managers haven’t changed either. What do you think?

Hugo Minney, North East branch committee member


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