During a recent visit to Quebec City, we went to the exposition on the Titanic. It was an incredible walk back in time. From the stories of the ship’s creators to those of its passengers, one couldn’t help but be moved by the excitement and grandeur of this maiden voyage and its tragic ending.
It led me to wonder about all the decisions that resulted in this ship, believed to be unsinkable, being broken in two and taking a dive for the ocean floor, leaving the 2,000 some passengers in its wake. And I realized that those decisions were made much like decisions made all the time, every day.
In the case of the Titanic, the focus was entirely on the gains this magnificent ship could achieve for the Star Line Company. Whether we focus on potential gains or losses determines how we deal with risk.
For example, if a doctor tells a patient they are going to die, they will take greater risks with treatments. They feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the other hand, if the doctor tells the patient they have a certain number of days to live, they are more risk averse. They frame their decisions around the days of life they could lose.
Oddly, the primary factor in decisions concerning the design and operation of this new ship was the perceived absence of even the usual risks. Standard practices, warnings and common sense were ignored.
In 1912, the Titanic was the world’s largest, fastest, safest and most luxurious ship, and the maiden voyage was meant to prove it. Confidence was in abundance as the design included 16 water-tight compartments, leading to the belief that the ship was unsinkable. Star Line management would not conceive of a situation where so many of the compartments would be flooded as to cause the sinking of its newest ship.
The high degree of confidence in the Titanic led to many out-of-the-norm behaviors. The designer was overruled on two critical matters. One, the water-tight compartments should have extended all the way up through the ship. However, that would have eliminated some living space.
The same type of rationale was used when it came to not including enough lifeboats for all the passengers. The decks, it was decided, would be too cluttered. These matters rested on one key factor: how conducive were they to the vision of making Star Line the leader in luxury experience and accommodations.
In addition, the lookouts stationed in the crows nest were without binoculars. In the hustle and bustle visual aids were forgotten or misplaced. No one seemed too concerned.
Ice warnings from three other ships were ignored. This is a hard one to understand. It was as if, like with youth, there was this sense of being invincible. The Titanic steamed ahead at full speed with the intent to surprise and impress with an early arrival in New York.
Without binoculars, the iceberg was sighted without much time to respond. And despite the quick reaction, the ship was clipping along at such a fast pace that it was almost impossible to safely clear the iceberg. Though the Titanic was saved from a head on collision, skimming within inches of the icy structure, below the surface the berg’s protrusions sliced into its side.
It seems all the world bought into the belief that the Titanic was this unsinkable wonder. For even the captain of the Californian, a ship just ahead of the Titanic that had sent the last iceberg warning, ignored the distress flares sent up. He figured Titanic was enjoying a bit of celebration.
More astounding was the unfailing belief of a passenger as she watched the ship on its descent from a lifeboat. “The first wish on the part of all was to stay near the Titanic. We all felt safer near the ship. Surely such a vessel could not sink,” recalled 40-year-old Elizabeth Shutes.
Like in the launching of the Shuttle Challenger, facts and experts were ignored. Appropriate questions were not asked and important input was simply dismissed. The decision-makers were so determined, it was as if they thought they could will success. Instead, they met with disaster.
It happens every day in business boardrooms and on manufacturing floors. Politics, influencing skills, position and intimidation get in the way of good decisions. Framing around gains or losses plays with our perceptions, and in some cases blinds us to balanced decision-making. Perhaps the error of our ways goes unnoticed; the consequences are not always as visible, nor as painful as our historic tragedies. Costly, nonetheless, they are.
Anita Ancel is President of Ancelary Group, a Vermont firm that helps executives and their teams develop attitudes and habits for ongoing success.