In a recent New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn writes, “It may not be true that “the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,” as one historian has put it, but it’s not much of an exaggeration.” Hundreds of lives were lost, many families were torn apart, and the world was in agony. Many tiny acts of carelessness caused the ship’s downfall and continue to provide us lessons today…assuming that we stop to listen and learn.
Just over 700 people escaped from the Titanic after it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912. More than 1,500 others were not so fortunate. There is no one person to blame for the Titanic’s sinking. Important characters were Captain John Smith, Bruce J. Ismay (former chairman of the White Star Line and survivor), the ship designers and crew of the Titanic. Many “What Ifs” could have and should have been asked even before the voyage began. What if the Titanic had enough lifeboats for everyone? What if Captain Smith had heeded the warnings of ice and altered the course or slowed down? What if, what if, what if….
Are there any crisis leadership/business continuity lessons that apply today? Absolutely!
- Understand the environment: Slower speed could have prevented the Titanic accident. In treacherous terrain, it is important for all of us to have high situational awareness and to the very best of our ability, be aware of what is going on. Situation awareness involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity, to understand how information, events, and one’s own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future. This is critical in managing a crisis!
- Keep your hubris in check: The ship’s officers were overconfident about their ship and their abilities. Humility is a great virtue and one that will serve you well, in all situations…crisis or not.
- Lead: It is important that those in the position of leadership do just that, lead! A key aspect of that leadership is the willingness to make a decision and then execute on that decision. There was much hedging going on in the early stages of the Titanic emergency and leadership was in short supply.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: Poor communication seems to always be one of the top learnings in any disaster. It is essential to have a well thought out external and internal communication strategy. The external communication was challenged by the Marconi wireless telegraphy system onboard the Titanic. It was innovative and probably too cutting-edge to be effective: Not many people knew yet how to operate and receive Marconi messages. The internal communication was poor especially to the third class passengers. No formal ship wide announcement was made that Titanic was sinking. People who heard murmurs of an emergency dismissed them.
- Have a plan: Remember the Titanic was unsinkable. And when you actually believe you are unsinkable, why have a plan?!?! There was no plan because it wasn’t supposed to happen. We must have plans, they must be usable, executable and current…. even if you believe nothing will ever happen to your company!
- Activate early: The evacuation order was given too late. By the time people realized it was “bad”, it was too late. Passengers were reluctant to board the lifeboats and most of the lifeboats placed in the water were less than half full. Companies are no different. They keep thinking it will get better. The IT department are known for saying, “Give me 15 more minutes, I know we can fix it!” There is nothing wrong with activating and then stopping if you resolve the issue.
- Training is essential: The Titanic crew was not familiar with the procedures to evacuate the ship and launch the lifeboats. The time to learn your procedures is not when you need them but well in advance. Training is critical and pays off when emergencies occur.
- Exercises are a lifesaver: The crew’s inability to respond quickly and appropriately wasted time and cost lives. We fall back to our level of training and humans learn best by doing. We need to do regular exercises to ensure an appropriate response.
- Have the appropriate equipment: The Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats – there were 1,178 lifeboat seats and 2,200 people. The regulation was based on the ships tonnage, not the number of passengers. Do you have the equipment that you need to respond and recover in a disaster? Does your staff know how to use the supplies and are they up-to-date?
- Conduct an after action investigation: Once an incident is over, stop and evaluate what you did right and wrong and plan a course of action to correct deficiencies. The follow-up to the Titanic disaster resulted in major changes to maritime law that impacts us all even today. Learn from your failures and plan a course of action to correct them.
What the Titanic did then and continues to do today, is to remind us that the practically unsinkable is indeed sinkable and that the unthinkable could and can happen. The lesson? Learn from history – it is likely to repeat itself!