Saturday, April 14, 2012

Project management lessons you can take from the Titanic disaster

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, according to the regulations that applied at the time, the 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.

Brooks says, milestones should be objectively measurable. If you do not have valid measurements for your project, you will run into problems.

2: Assumptions will 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 you seen things blow up in your face because of assumptions? Maybe you assumed that a particular system was using a newer software release than it actually was.

Maybe you assumed that another department or someone else, would take care of ordering cable. Maybe you assumed that the vendor received our critical email message and didn't need you to call to check.

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, we can always find fault with the actions of Titanic officers and crew.

Clearly, they must have known about the risks of traveling through “Iceberg Alley” so, 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?

And you are not alone in facing distractions. If enough members of your team encounter enough distractions, your project will gradually wander of course and 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 she 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 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 Allison family, in first class, 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 when the ship sank.

Your own project might not be as critical as a sinking ship but 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 although 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 new ships the White Star Line had built, around that time. 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.” A typical customer, if there is such a thing, will say, “Can you make just this one small change please?”

The fact is, any change is rarely “small.” It typically involves making other 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, the need for change control and ensure 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, and 150 victims were buried in three cemeteries there, then that victim number was engraved on the grave marker.

The victim number allowed researchers and others to link victim and property descriptions, to the 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 in those times.

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 resilient. 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 researchers made use of these records, and DNA analysis to identify the “Unknown Child of the Titanic.”

No one enjoys documenting a project or system but it is a necessary part of it. Documentation is often the 'most' important part of the project because it will exist long after the project team has been disbanded.

Documentation probably won't need to exist for a hundred years, but it should still serve the purpose of helping your customers understand their system and allow them to build on what you have already accomplished.

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