Lessons from the unsinkable ship

What sank the Titanic could sink your career and your organization?

Building a successful organisation and career is a journey. A journey you need to be intentional about. In between your starting point and destination, you face both new and familiar challenges.  Navigating through these challenges is important in taking your ship to shore safely.

I loved the film Titanic when it was first released in 1998. However, it was not until decades later, I truly comprehended what sank the Titanic. The Titanic was 882 feet by 92 feet long and weighed 52,310 tons. It was dubbed the unsinkable ship until it struck an iceberg. But wait, was it really an iceberg that sank the Titanic?

Understanding why the Titanic failed is very important as there are latent lessons for us to learn. One important technique in getting to the root cause of a problem is called “5 Whys”. I have used this technique several times in my professional and personal life. The way it works is simple. You ask why a problem occurred. Each subsequent answer forms the basis of the next question. You ask why again until you are satisfied you have found the root cause of the problem. Parents know this very well. Your toddler keeps asking you why, then why, and why…. until you probably have no more answers (in most cases, you lose the will….).  

What lessons could organisations and leaders learn today from the failure of the Titanic? At the surface, the iceberg sank the Titanic. However, there were a few contributory factors that created the “perfect storm” that led to the sinking of the ship of dreams. I will share 3 in this piece.

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Too big to fail

1. It is believed that Bruce Ismay the Managing Director of the company put pressure on Captain Smith not to slow down. They were very confident. The competition was fierce and to cross the Atlantic in 6 days was the goal to be achieved at all cost.  How often do you hear speed, agility, quick cycle, rapid innovation in organizations today?  While this is important to remain profitable, relevant and grow, organisations especially start-ups need to be watchful of the trade-offs.  The role of due diligence, not getting carried away with the hype and neglecting the basics, should be taken seriously. Samsung knows this very well with the failure of the Galaxy Note 7. It moved from the best smartphone ever to the most dangerous smartphone with market value dropping $17 Billion along the way.  If you must adopt a fast strategy, be clear on the trade-off and cost of failure. If there is a high risk of failure, plan to fail fast and fail small. Fail within a safe framework and learn from it quickly. Don’t be over-confident you understand the market and you have the connections.  Failure is only a part of success but avoid big failures as you may never recover or “start-up”.  

To rise to the top within an organization, you need to allow “process” to mature and nurture you. While it may be easy to get to the top through your network and “connection”, it is the skills, knowledge and character that will sustain you and set you apart. Focus on honing your skills and always balance speed with depth.   

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Too big to adapt

2. “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship”, said Capt. Smith. Organizational arrogance has been the nemesis of modern organizations. Their Achilles heels? “they were too big to adapt”.  It was virtually unsinkable and this may have led to complacency that made the Captain ignore seven iceberg warnings.  Businesses that arrogantly ignore changes in consumer demands and industry shifts are doomed to sink.  Your strategic plans written 3 years ago may not be relevant today. When last did you review the value proposition of your product or service?  Blackberry’s failure was Apple’s success, Blockbusters demise was Netflix’s resurrection. Kodak saw the signs. Oh Kodak!, they even researched digital photography earlier than most competitors but yet failed to adapt quickly.

Leaders need to be lifelong learners. Some skills and jobs are likely going to be extinct whether you like it or not. Technology is a big game-changer today across many, if not all, fields.  Do you know the skills your industry is looking for? Gaining expertise in those skills will go a long way to make you relevant and competitive. Learn to embrace change within and outside your organization.

Too superior to be inclusive

3.  In project management you are often asked to identify the foreseeable risks and put measures in place to mitigate the risk or reduce the impact of failure.  The Titanic crew appear to have planned for the disastrous scenario. Only 20 lifeboats were on board. With preferential treatment to upper-class passengers, more children were lost in the lower class.  As Walter Lord documented, one child was lost in the first class and 52 out of 79 children were lost in the third class.  It is thought that some boats were not filled to full capacity.

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Creating “class” along racial, ethnicity, social line could limit the potential of organizations to grow. I work in a very diverse organization. My observation is this, more diverse groups are often more innovative, come up with better solutions and are more creative. Recruiting based on talent without discrimination is still a challenge for lots of companies. Organizations are healthy when we embrace inclusivity and give everyone, regardless of their colour, background, a right to succeed. When organizations especially in the Western world feel too superior to create a diverse and inclusive environment, they fail. Did you hear of the Soap dispenser product that did not spew foam on dark palms? Perhaps selecting a broad selection of diverse groups would have picked up the issue during R&D.  Having a diverse talent pool brings different cultural perspectives, local knowledge to marketing and sales.

I close with this. Learning from failures is all of a sudden, a modern business strategy for innovative companies. It was Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos that said, “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments,”.  Do not be scared to try new things, switch to a new career, introduce new products into the market, go into a new partnership etc. Our of change, growth is birth. However, be careful to prepare for change, understand the trade-offs and failure cost while aspiring to succeed.

Titanic was a big failure but a great lesson that has improved the safety and standards in the cruise industry. A lesson organizations and leaders must continue to learn.

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