Titanic lesson in project management

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Posted by APM on 29th Oct 2014

Ranjit Sidhu, Director of ChangeQuest, presented a different look at the Titanic story to a well-attended event held at the Met Office in Exeter. Ranjit began by saying though the Titanic disaster was over 100 years ago, it still has many relevant lessons for todays project managers and would look at the people and leadership lessons. Ranjit explained that one hundred years ago, people were in the midst of a technological revolution, and genuinely believed that technology was a panacea for many problems.

Issue One: The three key stakeholders of the White Star Lines RMS Titanic, JP Morgan (Financier), Bruce Ismay, White Star Chairman and Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolfe (White Stars ship builder of choice), worked together on a strategy to compete against their business rival, Cunard. They decided their Unique Selling Point was luxury rather than speed, with three ultra modern ships, the Olympic, the Titanic and a third ship (the Britannic) to be financed from the profit of the first two. Ranjit highlighted the conflicting priorities of each of the Stakeholders which led to scope creep.

Lesson One: Project managers need to understand clearly who the key stakeholders are and their expectations, as well as defining how strategic goals are agreed and the approach for achieving them.

Issue two: Technology and safety was a key driver for the initial design of the ships but misinterpretation of this through uncontrolled press communications lead to the widely-held myth that they were practically unsinkable. Following design reviews, changes were made to meet the vision for luxury which compromised safety. This included reducing the number of life boats to improve the 1st Class passengers views, and reducing Titanics full height bulkheads to achieve a larger dining room. The implications of the cumulative effect of the changes were not tested.

Lesson Two: When making scope changes look for recurring problems why have these not been resolved? Question whether different perceptions have been tested or not how robust are the assumptions being made? Question what the overall impact is of any compromises and trade-offs will the strategic goals still be delivered?

Issue Three: Flawed Lessons from the Olympic (which had been badly damaged in a collision) were used to modify Titanics design to further reduce the number of lifeboats, increase 1st Class accommodation and add extra reinforcing to reduce vibration. The Chief Designer, Carlisle resigned over the lifeboat issue, but his concerns were steadfastly ignored by the stakeholders.

The collision damage to the Olympic required repairs in the same shipyard building the Titanic - so much so that her sea trials were reduced to half a day because of the marketing pressure not to delay the Titanics maiden voyage. Her crew were only given 5 days to prepare, so they were not even familiar with the ships layout. This somewhat confused situation was compounded by a last minute change of senior officers.

The maiden voyage itself became the sea trial and the operational/management problems were made worse because Ismay was chasing a marketing coup of the fastest crossing. The problems included no access to binoculars for the look-outs; the ice test rope being too short for the height of the vessel and the Marconi radio operators were not told to report ice warnings promptly. This resulted in ice warnings from other ships not being forwarded to Duty Officers, the ice test being faked, and lookouts not being able to see far enough ahead for evasive action to be taken, whilst the Titanic was at full speed. What happened is now tragic history.

There are key lessons for team effectiveness, which Ranijt explores more fully in her book Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership. There were no clear roles, operating processes or decision escalation procedures. Interpersonal and communication skills were lacking. The teams had not had chance to go through the forming, storming, norming and performing journey in preparing for the voyage. There were also dangers in having a charismatic, overbearing leader such as Bruce Ismay (who survived the sinking) over-ruling operational decisions that should have been left to Captain Smith and the Chief Design Officer (who both went down with their ship).

Lesson Three: Consider what benefits and assumptions are held by the project team that keep getting reinforced in your environment. Do you have an its unsinkable assumption that should be challenged and tested? How well does the team communicate and work together. Do you all have a common understanding about assumptions and goals? How well are your stakeholder expectations managed.

Lessons Learnt

We see all too regularly communication and operational failures in projects as scope is changed without consideration of the full impacts, or delays during development are recovered through the shortening of test periods. So can we, as professional project managers, do more to assist Project Sponsors to see the value of considered change control, managed communications and not compromising on testing.

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