Project Management 101: Lessons from the Titanic

Apr 15, 2013
5 Min Read

101 years ago today, the Titanic failed to reach its final destination. There are many lessons this disaster can teach us about project management, from understanding how "hull speed" may be better than "full steam ahead" to complete a project without incident. There's also the lesson project managers have learned that the issues to completing a successful project don't always lie above the surface, but like an iceberg, may loom much larger than what you can see on the horizon.

Just 29 days after the sinking of the Titanic, survivor Dorothy Gibson starred and co-wrote in a film about the disaster that claimed more than 1,500 lives. Although no copies of the film exist today, more than 20 other movies have been made about the Titanic, and more than a dozen television movies or episodes are devoted to the subject.

It’s clear that the fascination with the Titanic has remained strong in the last century, so it may be worth considering what simple, yet often overlooked, lessons this famous disaster can still offer, especially in terms of project management 101.

  • Learn to make adjustments. Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, often receives the lion’s share of blame for the disaster, and his obstinate belief that the ship could not sink helped lead to it being at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  When the ship’s crew was warned about icebergs, did it move to Plan B? Nope, it plowed ahead. When project managers spot trouble ahead, they’ve got to be flexible and get team members to chart a new course.  They can’t be so fixated on sticking to a timetable or a process that there are serious repercussions – such as failing to meet the goal or doing so with great losses.
  • Don't fail to plan ahead. The Titanic was considered a luxury ship, outfitted with a gym, swimming pool, swanky cabins and top-notch service and food. What it didn’t have was enough lifeboats.

When working on a project, too many times the goals aren’t clearly defined, and that leads team members into rough seas that can soon have them floundering. When they need someone to pull them out, are there life rafts? Is the project set up from the beginning with safety measures to ensure that managers and stakeholders are on the same page? Or does a lack of clear communication and organization endanger the project from the beginning?

3. Train the crew. No one likes to contemplate failure, but the possibility is always there. Project managers can give team members the confidence to do their jobs by providing the right preparation and training. How many times have you heard heroic firefighters or military service members say after a successful mission that it wasn’t that big of a deal, because it was what they were trained to do?  Titanic’s crew had been so indoctrinated with the idea that the ship was infallible that they were unprepared when things started to go wrong. That led to a horrible outcome, and the same can be true for a team that isn’t prepared by the project manager and given the right project management software to do their jobs.

It’s doubtful the fascination with the Titanic will wane any time soon, but project managers can still learn lessons 101 years after it sank. They should take the lessons seriously to make sure their crews are trained for success—and for choppy waters.

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