10 project management lessons from the Titanic disaster

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Calvin Sun considers key lessons that project managers can take away from the details surrounding the tragedy.

One hundred years ago this month, RMS Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. More than fifteen hundred people died in that disaster. The event has been the subject of books and movies, but it also provides a few stark illustrations regarding project management mistakes and oversights. Here are seven lessons that relate to the sinking itself and three that involve the recovery of the victims.

1: You need to know what you're measuring

The lack of lifeboats is a well-known matter, and it certainly played a role in the number of deaths. However, did you know that Titanic DID have "enough" lifeboats? According to the standards in effect at the time, the WEIGHT of a ship -- not the number of passengers -- determined the number of required lifeboats. Needless to say, these standards changed as a result of the inquiries into the disaster.

This principle applies to your own projects. In his classic work The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick Brooks points out how far too often a project reaches the point of "coding 90% complete," only to remain that way forever. Rather, Brooks says, milestones should be objectively measurable. If you do not have valid measurements for your project, you too will run into problems.

2: Assumptions can kill you

A few hours before the collision, wireless operator Jack Phillips received a message from a nearby ship, telling him of icebergs in the area. However, Phillips at the time was taking care of messages to and from Titanic passengers and in doing so, was communicating with a lighthouse at Cape Race, Newfoundland. Unhappy with what he considered a bothersome message, and assuming it was unimportant, Phillips replied brusquely, "Shut up, I am working Cape Race!" As a result, Phillips never received the iceberg warning the ship was trying to send.

How often have we seen things blow up in our faces because of assumptions? Maybe we assumed that a particular system was using a newer software release than it actually was. Maybe we assumed that another department would take care of ordering cable. Maybe we assumed that the vendor received our critical email message. Assumptions are important in your work, but if you proceed on the basis of them, make sure everyone is clear about what assumptions you are making.

3: Distractions are dangerous

Of course, when we look back on an incident, we can always find fault with the actions of Titanic officers and crew. Still, because they certainly must have known about the risks of traveling through "Iceberg Alley," they should have focused the wireless operators less on passenger messages and more on communication with other ships.

The Phillips incident, therefore, illustrates another hazard to project management: that of being distracted. How often do you start your work with the best intentions of completing your to-do list, only to become sidetracked by chatting with co-workers or surfing the Web? If enough members of your team encounter enough distractions, your project will gradually fall behind.

4: Little things add up

A number of small factors played a role in the Titanic disaster. Allegedly, the lookouts had no binoculars, because those binoculars had been left behind at Southampton, where Titanic began her voyage. Jack Phillips interrupted a ship trying to send him an iceberg warning and neglected to deliver an earlier warning. While no one factor can be said to have "caused" the disaster, the effect of all of them made the disaster all the more likely.

Brooks asked rhetorically, "How does a software project get to be a year late? One day at a time." He explained that if a major event or problem occurs, a project team rallies and steps up its effort. However, such a team can fail to appreciate the issues of small delays and how those small delays (for example, illness of a team member or the postponement of a vendor meeting) add up. In other words, the small delays are just as critical as the large ones, meaning that adherence to milestones is critical to the success of a project.

5: Stakeholders should be kept informed

Following the iceberg collision, the nurse for the first class Allison family took one-year-old Trevor Allison from the family stateroom without saying where she was going. She and Trevor boarded a lifeboat and were rescued. However, because Trevor's parents didn't know about it, they spent the rest of the time looking for Trevor, turning down chances to escape in a lifeboat. As a result, the parents and their other child, three-year-old Loraine, died in the sinking.

Your own project might not be as critical as a sinking ship. Still, your stakeholders need to know about the status and progress of your project. Keeping them informed will keep them happier.

6: Other people's perspectives matter

One of the victims of Titanic was 23-year-old John Law Hume, a member of the band. A few weeks after the sinking, the company that managed the band sent a letter to his father, asking for payment for his son's band uniform. Even though such a request made financial sense from the company's perspective, it almost certainly sounded insensitive to Mr. Hume.

In the same way, when explaining aspects of a project, especially by technical members of your project team, try to see things from the other person's perspective. If a client asks a question, try to see beyond the question itself to the motivation behind the question. If a technical person is explaining a function of a system or program, make sure the explanation avoids jargon. Clear communication will lead to happier clients.

7: Moving targets can hurt you

The Titanic was one of three (at the time) new ships the White Star Line had built. The company's strategy was to emphasize luxury, not speed, as a selling point. Yet during that maiden Titanic voyage, White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay reportedly pressured Captain Edward Smith to increase speed. This higher speed quite likely contributed to the collision, in preventing the ship and crew from reacting quickly enough.

In your projects, beware of "scope creep." Typical is the customer who says, "Can you make just this one small change please?" The fact is, any change is rarely "small." Rather, it typically involves changes to other parts of a system, results in greater complexity, and requires more testing. Make sure that your customer knows that in a project world governed by quality, time, and budget, at least one will have to yield. Be sure your customer understands the implications of a requested change and that the customer's expectations are appropriately set.

8: Traceability is essential

A few days after the sinking, rescue ships based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, set out to recover victims and to return them to Halifax. As each victim was recovered, he or she was numbered accordingly. The recovery crew recorded information and a description of the victim in a ledger book and then bagged personal effects with that same victim number. If that victim was later buried in Halifax (150 victims were buried in three cemeteries there), that victim number was engraved on the grave marker. The victim number allowed researchers and others to link victim description to property description to cemetery location.

The same kind of traceability is important in your projects. How familiar are you with the strategic objectives of your company? Can you find a logical connection between the requirements of your project and those strategic objectives? Of course, the connection might be a distant one, but there should be a connection nonetheless. But if you can find no such connection, you start asking yourself whether that requirement really is part of your system.

9: Methodology is more important than technology

When the recovery crews were recording victim information, they used regular ledger notebooks and pens -- obviously, no one had iPads, computers, or barcode scanners. Nonetheless, the methodology they used had solid reasoning behind it, so it proved highly effective.

In the same way, you might want to use sophisticated planning and tracking software and tools. More important, though, is that your plan be solid. The best software in the world will not save a poorly designed plan.

10: Documentation may have lasting benefits

The documentation of the recovery records are still kept in Halifax, at the Public Archives. Researchers in Halifax and from around the world still visit and review this documentation, one hundred years after the fact. A few years ago, for example, researchers made use of these records as well as of DNA analysis to identify the "Unknown Child of the Titanic."

No one likes to document a project or system. However, documentation is often the most important part of the project because it may exist long after the project team has disbanded. That documentation might not need to exist for one hundred years, but it should still serve the purpose of helping your customers understand their system.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.


When the titanic sank, there were still  so  may   lifeboats  there  that  no one  used  because  the   didn't  had   the  idea .This   thing   escaped  their  mind.Had   those  been   utilized   at least 1500 more lives   could  had   been  saved.So  the underlying idea  is  that the   management  should always aware of  all  the  resources   at    their  disposal  and   should  be   able   to  use them properly  at  the needful time  to their  benefit.



No matter how great the idea of a project is, and how much experience you have as a project manager, you can never be 100% immune to project failure. This is why this topic always brings up such a hot and stirring discussion in the PM space. I really like the idea of the article, and I think that all these points from early 20th century still hold true today. Lessons 4 and 5 look especially valuable to me. Project managers might have different opinions regarding the causes of project failure, but I bet all of them agree that learning is essential. By the way, we recently published a post where 5 seasoned project managers share their practical lessons they'd recommend to learn from project failure: The point about keeping stakeholders in the loop is observed there, too. Of course, no one likes to fail, but if you look at the bright side, it might be a really abundant source of professional wisdom. You just need to look from the right angle and look really thoroughly.


The same lessons could be learned from the problems in management, oversight and collaboration in all the failures that allowed 9-11, the '08 financial system meltdown and the shuttle crashes to happen (to name a few.) Anniversaries like this give us a great though sobering opportunity to review, reflect, look forward and prevent. Thanks to the author for pointing out these commonalities between preventable disasters large and small, historic and temporary. Same time, next century.


Excellent article! Of course with the Titanic disaster, the victims will not benefit from the lessons learned, but each point made is valid and well made. Thank you!


White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay, who ordered several cost cuts like no double hull and fewer lifeboats, escaped the Titanic in a lifeboat and lived to a ripe old age. Chief engineer Thomas Andrews and Captain Smith went down with the ship along with a lot of the crew.


I don't agree with point number 3. While it is important to finish the tasks on your to-do list, it is also important to be aware of emerging problems. Phillips was not "goofing off" as might be implied by this point. He had a list of messages to send and by gully he was going to send them, even if it meant forcefully rejecting a message warning him of danger. Suppose you have to deploy a suite of software to 100 machines, and after the first 20 you start receiving complaints that the deployment is faulty. Do you continue to deploy so you meet your deadline and not catch heck from management, or do you stop the deployment and notify your supervisor? Do you tell the people who are warning you to shut up because you have work to do? You could be ignoring the equivalent of an iceberg for your project.


I got to No 3 & realised I should be working instead...


desperate for a 'topical' idea were we? Where 'most searched terms' meets complete lack of thought. This isn't even about project management - it's about accident causation/human factors.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

It was project managers slavish following of delivery dates that samnk the Titanic. The bit that is often left out of the documentaries, is that the Titanic really was designed to be unsinkable. She was designed to have airtight bulkheads throughout her length. They would have kept her afloat despite bigger holes than the iceberg made. The problem was, they were not finished when she sailed. If they had been, she would have survived the iceberg. So why did she sail before she was finished? Because they didn't want to miss the "release date". Project managers never learn, it is better to do things right and take the bullet for being late.

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