Management Lessons from Titanic

When Jack Dawson won two tickets to aboard RMS Titanic in a poker game, little did he know that he would meet the love of his life, Rose, and that he would never live to see the land again.

Titanic stands as one of the most famous maritime disasters in human history, and there are plenty of project management lessons that we shall heed from this tragedy:

1. Even the unsinkable can sink

Although Titanic claimed to be “unsinkable” and Captain Smith and the crew had deep experiences with transatlantic voyages, she still perished. [1]

There are risks associated with every project.  Nothing is 100% certain, and assuming otherwise can have dire consequences.

2. Always be realistic and prepare for the worst

Titanic only carried 20 lifeboats, which only accounted for 33% of the passengers.  Although it was above the regulation requirement at the time, it obviously was not enough.

Whether it’s because they were trying to save room to sell more tickets, or that they were superstitious about carrying more lifeboats, or that they really believed Titanic being unsinkable, it shows that when one is not being realistic and prepared for the worst, disasters can ensue.

Anything can happen on a project, and preparing for the worst is only the prudent choice.

3. Being overly ambitious increases risk

When J. Bruce Ismay asked Captain Smith to speed up the ship for early arrival to generate publicity, he sped her up toward her doom that arguably might have been avoided all together if she had not increased the speed. [2]

Ambitious goals mean higher risks and must be weighed accordingly to determine whether the reward is worth the potential cost.

4. Icebergs are only 1/7th above water

The top only serves as a warning to the really big trouble lurks below the surface where you can’t see.

If you don’t want to run into big troubles, pay attention to the little signs, for they might foreshadow what’s to come.

5. Big ships take more time to steer

The same goes for bigger projects.  They take longer to change direction.  Thus to avoid crashing into an iceberg you must be able to see farther or slow down, or you might not react in time.

6. Slow down and Turn is the natural decision under stress and it is the wrong decision

It has been studied that slowing down reduced Titanic’s maneuverability.  Had Titanic made the turn with full speed she might have missed the iceberg with meters to spare.

And if she instead ran into the iceberg head-on, because the bow was naturally stronger than the hull, she might have survived the impact with fewer death counts.

It shows that people do not make the best decisions under stress, and hence it is doubly as important not to put people into stressful situations, and teach people how to mitigate stress so they can perform better.

7. It is impossible to control the mass in panic mode

Locking them up (the 3rd class passengers) wouldn’t do.  Shouting them to follow orders wouldn’t do, and shooting them down still wouldn’t do.

When people are in mass panic they will stampede in whichever directions, overwhelming even the strongest controls.   If they are not trained what to do prior to the panic setting in, nothing will help.

On projects about to face crisis it is important to have strong leadership with open communication channels to ensure the members know what’s going on and what to do in case of crisis, instead of withholding information and wait until the last minute.

8. When a ship is certain to sink, abandon it with all haste

Part of the reason that Titanic had such a high death count is because many people did not want to leave the ship – it seemed safer than the lifeboat – until it was too late.

This is going to be a difficult pill to swallow, but when a project is a mathematical certainty to fail, the best thing to do is to shut it down immediately, instead of “trying to save it” and drag out the agony.  It is better to start over in such situations.

9. Search and take care of the survivors

The survivors of a failed project, just like the survivors of a shipwreck, will be traumatized.  They will be burnt out, stressed, demoralized, and need help.  They must be taken cared of to ensure there are no lasting ill-effects.

10. Figure out what went wrong to not repeat them again

Although we did not see the aftermath of Titanic in the film, large detailed investigations took place to figure out what went wrong and what to do to avoid repeating the same tragedy again.  Maritime laws and regulations such as the lifeboat requirements were changed to greatly increase safety.

Always conduct a postmortem for your project to capture the lessons learned, and implement them.  It might feel like a painful process but it would be a lot more painful if the same issues continue to derail your future projects.

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[1] Titanic’s unsinkable reputation might have only took place after the disaster.

[2] There was no evidence whether Titanic was above its cruising speed or whether Ismay actually made the request to speed up Titanic, but Ismay was despised for being a coward as the highest-ranking survived ship official, and people might have made up stories to make him even more of a villain.

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