7 (more) project management lessons from the Titanic disaster

Calvin Sun at Tech Republic wrote a very thought-provoking post about project management lessons he learns from the Titanic disaster.

I agree with almost everything Calvin wrote but there are yet more lessons I learn from the stories Calvin brings. Here is what I learned:

1. Based on the standards of the time there actually were enough lifeboats on the Titanic.

Do we at least look smart? (photo by Keith Williamson on flickr)

At the time, the amount of lifeboats necessary per ship was based on the ship’s weight. In retrospect, that is obviously a terrible way to calculate how many lifeboats are needed per ship. I can just imagine a very important-looking committee of middle-aged, pipe-smoking white men coming up with that idea and feeling very smart about it. It seriously boggles the mind.

Lesson learned: Although it often feels as though everything that could have been thought of, has been, that’s never true. Don’t let yourself get stuck in old habits but instead, always question techniques and methods, even those that are widely accepted. This will allow you to constantly develop professionally so that every project you manage is an improvement over the last one.

2. When the wireless operator got a message from a nearby ship warning the Titanic about icebergs  he answered: “Shut up, I am working Cape Race!”

Well, first of all, yikes.

Lesson learned, #1: No matter what position you hold or how much pressure you’re under, it’s always important to properly process what other people are telling you. Humility is key for succeeding in any job. That doesn’t mean that you need to allow yourself to be pushed in every direction, but being open to what others have to say can really enlighten you to the work at hand.

Lesson learned, #2: Of course, don’t say “Shut up.” It’s rude.

3. The wireless operator was focused on sending and receiving messages for passengers instead of on life-and-death-related communication.

Often clients can persuade us to focus on less important tasks instead of the core tasks of the project. Or they might want us to work in a way that we know from experience is at least somewhat detrimental to the project. We might be tempted to give into this because it’s easier to go along with their requests rather than “confront” the client and tell them what we think is best for their project.

But, surprise surprise, the customer is not always right. And, shockingly, most clients actually do hire us for our professionalism which means that they need and very possibly even want to hear our professional opinions on whatever they are requesting of us.

I’d like to assume that if passengers of the Titanic were told the day after a huge iceberg was narrowly missed (in an alternate universe, of course) that personal messages had not been sent or received because it had been a particularly dangerous night at sea, most would have been capable of understanding that decision.

Lesson learned: Be honest about your opinions with your clients, trust that they hired you for your professionalism and give them the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of dealing with a certain amount of “confrontation” in regards to their project.

4. The lookouts had no binoculars

I see here the importance of creating a healthy dynamic between the management and the team. The management has to have enough humility in order to hear the team members’ opinions and the team members need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns, especially if they see a real problem in the project. In the case of the Titanic, the lookouts should have felt totally comfortable complaining to their superiors about not having binoculars (I imagine this fact made them feel quite uncomfortable).

Lesson learned: Everyone should feel comfortable communicating so that everything is done responsibly. Sometimes it’s going to be the “little guy” who understands really what is going on. It’s also important to get lots of input from the client since they are usually the ones who really understand aspects of the project that are difficult for us to understand by ourselves.

5. One family’s nurse took one of the children to a lifeboat without informing the parents.

…Because of this, the parents searched incessantly for the child and ended up dying with their other child.

Sometimes keeping people up to date on a project and keeping a project tracked properly (which is sort of like communication in a time capsule) feel like a serious waste of time. You have deadlines, people on all ends waiting to hear from you, and meanwhile you’re spending time organizing small details non-stop. Making sure the financial side of the project is up to date and filling out a project log all take so much time. And yet, it is specifically this effort that keeps projects moving smoothly without any big misunderstandings happening.

Lesson learned: Spending a substantial amount of time on considering who needs to know what and making sure they receive the relevant information in a timely manner is not a waste of time. It is actually what prevents misunderstandings and wasted time in the future.

6. The father of one of the victims received a bill for his son’s band costume a few weeks after the disaster.

Oy vey.

We all think that our jobs are about things like site planning, web design, web development or SEO when really all our jobs have so much to do with dealing respectfully and sensitively with the people around us – including the management above us, our coworkers, the project team and our clients. Sometimes it can feel so frustrating, thinking about how much time is spent on the human aspect of our projects. It can seem like a waste of time, energy or even money, having to figure out how to properly deal with particularly sensitive situations. But this isn’t actually a waste of time; it’s a basic part of any project (or anything we do in our lives).

Lesson learned, #1: Sometimes extremely sensitive issues arise. In order to deal with them properly, they must be given serious thought and probably discussion within the team. Figuring out solutions for sensitive issues inevitably takes a large amount of energy and time and it’s best to come to terms with this and not consider it a waste. Communicating clearly and sensitively helps keep everyone on the same page. It will create a feeling of everyone being on the same side, working together, not against each other and it will help the project turn out as good as possible, even if there are glitches.

Lesson learned, #2: Every project has the potential of involving financial loss. That’s just the way it is. When that happens, get over it and move on.

7. The Titanic wasn’t built for speed. And yet, during that maiden Titanic voyage, White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay reportedly pressured Captain Edward Smith to increase speed.

We all know that feeling of getting pressure to do things quickly. It’s a funny thing, our culture today. Because people are used to getting things quickly, sometimes even when it comes to tasks that are extended and complex, people try to get them done quickly.

Speed is overrated, especially when on the Titanic. It was such a beautiful, luxurious ship, that people would probably have been happy to spend an extra couple of days on board rather than rush to their destination (especially in the good ol’ days when people didn’t feel as rushed).

Unfortunately, speed today is considered an ideal at the expense of more quality ideals. But, as Calvin wrote: “in a project world governed by quality, time, and budget, at least one will have to yield.” Higher speeds cause stress, don’t allow people to think things through and often leave everyone involved feeling unsatisfied. Rushing a project also often makes it go out of budget since there is more quality assurance later and often the client will need changes done to the site later which, if planned properly, could have been implemented into the site during the project, as part of the original scope of the project.

Lesson learned: Don’t rush unless completely necessary (which is almost never, considering we’re building websites, not saving lives).

8, 9 and 10. The recovery crew recorded information and a description of the victims in as much detail as possible.

Click on that link at your own risk (it’s chilling and strangely addictive).

Lesson learned: See #5 for the same lesson learned. It’s so important and helpful to keep things documented.

In conclusion

"Sigh... If only Deena had been the project manager on this ship."
“Sigh… If only Deena had been the project manager on this ship.”

Most of these lessons are easier said than done. One of the reasons we don’t want to admit most of what I’ve written here is because it makes projects much more complex. But these points affect budget, timelines and as strange as this sounds, it affects the emotional side of our work. I recently read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. One chapter talks about airplane accidents and shows how, more than anything, the problem is almost always a lack of productive communication. Most of the examples of accidents that he brings could have been thwarted if people had communicated openly and confidently.

I think that more than ever today people fear open and straightforward communication. This is probably why people act out online when they can hide behind their screens and then pretend everything is OK in their “real life” interactions. For some reason people are scared of each other. But it is precisely open communication that can make a project really amazing, making the client feel that they got what they really wanted and needed from us and make us feel proud of the products we are creating.

I recommend you try it. It’s extremely challenging but very rewarding, professionally and personally.

Read the article that inspired this post here.