RMS Titanic was a feat of engineering, the largest and most luxurious of passenger liners when it set out on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York on April 10, 1912.
Yet, five days later, it was lying at the bottom of the North Atlantic and over 1,500 passengers were dead.
The main cause was a collision with an iceberg, but subsequent inquiries into the tragedy revealed errors in judgement and lost opportunities — those that could have saved lives.
Yesterday’s article discussed two lessons that company leaders and managers can learn from the Titanic disaster. Today’s article offers three more:
Don’t be overconfident
Titanic could carry over 3,000 people but had lifeboats for less than half that number.
This was due to a combination of outdated maritime safety regulations and the ship’s owner White Star Line’s wish to leave the decks unobstructed so that the passengers could have better views.
It was also believed that in an emergency, Titanic’s design would enable it to stay afloat long enough for its passengers and crew to be transferred safely to a rescue vessel. Overconfidence in Titanic’s “unsinkability” also led Captain Edward J. Smith to cancel a lifeboat drill planned earlier.
Lesson: Hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Believe in the Black Swan Theory: The improbable can happen.
Be careful about your assumptions
Titanic, the largest and most state-of-the-art liner of its time, was touted as virtually unsinkable.
Capt Smith proudly proclaimed: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
Titanic’s design was thought to be so superior that it would remain afloat even if four of its 16 compartments were flooded with water — something that was assumed to be impossible.
When the ship hit the iceberg, water poured quickly into five compartments, creating an ice-tray effect.
Once that happened, Titanic’s fate was inevitable.
Lesson: Even the biggest corporations can fail due to wrong assumptions and mismanagement. The great financial crisis of 2008 saw the collapse of financial giants like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
Two inquiries into the disaster revealed that the crew of Titanic received no fewer than six warnings from other ships in the area about icebergs.
They concluded that Capt Smith had failed to take proper heed of the ice warnings and that the collision was a direct result of steaming into a dangerous area at too high a speed.
The Californian, the nearest ship to Titanic, relayed a message that it was surrounded by ice and had stopped for the night.
However, the Titanic wireless operator, who was busily sending messages from the ship’s passengers, replied: “Shut up, shut up, I’m busy.”
The wireless operator of the Californian, annoyed at being scolded, turned off his equipment and retired for the night.
The ship was only a few kilometres away from Titanic, and would have been able to go to its rescue — if only it had received its distress signal.
Lesson: Be sensitive to changes in the business environment, and don’t dismiss advice even if it seems unnecessary or is unwanted. It may be telling you truths you don’t want to hear. And it may save your business life!