Could better project management have saved the Titanic?

We take a closer look at the run up to the sinking of the Titanic, and how more effective planning, better communication and improved organisation could have completely changed the ship's tragic story
Could better project management have saved the Titanic?

The story of the Titanic has been told and retold countless times. Each detail has been poured over endlessly; from the statistics of her gigantic size to the eerie coincidences that contributed to her untimely end. But a book by Ranjit Sidhu, Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership looks at the story from a different angle. Focusing on the people aspects of the Titanic story including the personalities involved in the ship’s construction and the power dynamics that came into play throughout the Titanic’s tragic story.

We attended Sidhu's ChangeQuest presentation hosted by the Association of Project Management to understand the mistakes made and how we can apply some of the lessons learnt to our own projects.

Strategy and stakeholders

The early 1900s was a time of industrial change, and with the technological revolution, engineering developments, the pioneering use of the telegraph and radio, and a growth in first class tourists, the shipbuilding sector was ready for a new type of vessel to enter the waters.

In 1907, three powerful men envisioned a trio of super liners that would take the world by storm. One of the richest men in the world J.P. Morgan, the owner of International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC) was prepared to bring the cash, prestige and power to the project. Bruce Ismay, the president of IMMC and chairman of White Star Liners, was eager to make ships truly luxurious for the first time. And Lord Pirrie, the chairman of marine manufacturing company, Harland and Wolff, was excited by the prospect of bringing the latest technology to state-of-the-art ships.

The first two super liners to be built were the Olympic and the Titanic.

Definitions and design

By 1908, Harland and Wolff had already come up with a prototype.

During the design stage extravagance was the prevailing mantra. Ismay conjured up the idea of a three storey tall staircase, a huge dining area, Turkish baths, and a modern gymnasium. On the structural side, Pirrie translated the idea of luxury to mean the highest safety standards available. A double hull was built into the plans, as well as high tech watertight compartments with electric sliding doors.

The designs were put to review in July of the same year. But when Ismay saw the plans he asked for changes. The lifeboats, he said, would block the first class passengers view of the promenade, so the numbers were reduced from 64 to 32. The sealed watertight bulkheads would take space away from the dining area, so these were lowered and the double hull (which took 4.5m from a 28m beam) was removed from the design.

Luxury quickly took precedence over safety. Bruce Ismay’s decisions were considered final and an anchor bias began to form, where too much focus on one trait (luxury) began to skew the perceptions of the project as a whole.

Changes and consequences

In 1910 the Olympic was launched, and a year later her sea trials were successfully completed. Hype began to build around the advanced super liners, with the media and the shipbuilders putting an emphasis on their incomparable safety. The word “unsinkable” began to be bandied around by many, including the Titanic’s captain, Edward John Smith.

As a result of a number of trips on the Olympic, Bruce Ismay decided to make more changes to the Titanic. He asked for the lifeboats on board to be reduced to just 16, so that they could build suites with private verandas. The chief architect, Alexander Carlise felt so strongly about the compromises being made to safety that he resigned. But the decision went unchallenged.

During her first year of operation, the Olympic collided with three other vessels. The third incident had an impact on the Titanic’s construction. With White Star found to blame, and no insurance money available, the company had to move the Titanic out so they could fix the battered vessel. An eight-week delay was expected.

Concerned about the first class passengers schedules, Ismay was hesitant to push back the date of the maiden voyage. Eventually he agreed to change it from the 30th of March to the 10th of April. To make up the time the workforce was increased and builders were employed around the clock.

Ultimately the Titanic was ready by the agreed date, but only at the expense of sea trials. While the Olympic had 30 days of testing, the Titanic had less than 12 hours in the water. Despite this, the ship regulators were confident enough to call it “sea worthy”.

Teams and tensions

After rushed trials, the Titanic sailed to Southampton to pick up her crew. Over 900 people were employed on the ship, and they had just five days to get her ready for the maiden voyage. With such little time to prepare, even the senior crew were unable to get familiar with the six-mile long ship and the on board processes.

During the time-pressured preparation, the original chief officer, William McMaster Murdoch was replaced by the chief officer from the Olympic, Henry Wilde. With Murdoch moving down to first officer, the original second officer, David Blair was out of a job. As a consequence he left the ship, taking with him the keys to the cupboard that held the binoculars for the crow’s nest.

When the Titanic finally left harbour, a key tension began to form between Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith. Passengers recounted hearing Ismay tell Smith that he wanted the Titanic to be faster than her sister and that they should arrive early in New York. The Captain may have been persuaded to go full speed ahead.

Decisions and disaster

With the wireless telegraph system being used mainly to transmit messages from first class passengers, only piecemeal information from ships on the same route and in the surrounding area were reaching the senior team. The crew was little prepared for the 18-mile wide giant ice field that was approaching fast.

While Captain Smith was well aware of Iceberg Alley, he believed that the Titanic was on route to miss most of the danger. He did not receive the information that the ice field was much lower than usual at that time, and that other ships had stopped for the night.

Without a pair of binoculars and with a light haze coming down over the area, the crow’s nest didn’t see the blue iceberg until it was too late. Murdoch gave the order to turn the ship but the Titanic hit the berg on its side.

Two teams were sent down to assess the damage. A technical team from Harland and Wolff went deep into the ship. While they were down in the depths, another team did a quick ten-minute walk around and came up to say everything was okay. The ship was then restarted and the icy water then quickly filled the hull.

The technical architects came back sometime later and told the Captain the news. The mailroom had flooded and the ship was doomed.

Crisis and collision

Overconfidence in the ship’s safety meant that the Captain and crew, at first, didn’t react properly to the news that an unsinkable ship was suddenly sinking. Crisis mode failed to kick in and many refused to take the incident seriously. The Captain, crew and even the passengers had fallen deep into what psychologists term a “normalcy bias”. Everyone was in denial.

Doubting the severity of the situation, the crew went about preparing the passengers to abandon ship at a slow pace. Many of the first lifeboats to leave the ship were not even launched at full capacity. A total of 472 spaces were left unfilled. Hubris-soaked planning coupled with fatal design flaws and a refusal to act with urgency condemned many passengers to a certain death.

A total of 1503 lives were lost when the Titanic sank into the icy waters. The disaster was the catalyst for the adoption of the first international Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which introduced new international requirements dealing with safety of navigation for all merchant ships.

When it comes to project management, the processes and behaviours of the people behind a project can make a vital difference to its outcome. It is possible that with better decision-making, a clearer focus, and more effective teamwork, the Titanic story could have been very different. She could have sailed on.

This article was based on the presentation by Ranjit Sidhu, Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership, www.changequest.co.uk

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by Laura Stackhouse

readmt.com Editor

Laura Stackhouse is the Web Editor of readmt.com, an official publication of the International Marine Purchasing Association (IMPA). To discuss news, features or contributing to readmt.com please get in touch.

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