April 11, 2012 smz-blog

Titanic lessons apply 100 years later


– Jamie Michelson, President

The word titanic was around long before it became a capital-T brand, instantly, when the White Star Line luxury ship sank 100 years ago next week. It dates back to powerful Titan gods of Greek mythology, and gained lasting power in another context that moonless night of April 14, 1912.

A century later, “Titanic” remains shorthand for avoidable disaster. Its saga spawned analogies so common they’re clichés, particularly in business. Small market shifts could be the tip of an iceberg. Cosmetic changes by a firm in peril are compared to rearranging deck chairs on that legendary liner.   

For those steering companies — whether a retail business, a mid-size creative agency or a global corporation — the Titanic centennial reminds us of practical lessons behind the familiar phrases. “The Titanic was unsinkable. Its fate therefore proves that nothing is,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote recently.

The 1912 disaster reinforces the need for humility, preparation and vigilance. 

These other lessons deliver guidance 100 years later:

Don’t misjudge by size: The fateful 1912 iceberg wasn’t as high as the ship’s bridge. But its bulk, largely underwater, made it an immovable obstacle that ripped six hull gashes spanning four watertight compartments. Similarly, a scrappy startup’s disruptive innovation can destabilize larger rivals. Savvy business leaders consider what may be below the surface. 

Heed danger signs: Ice in shipping lanes is a common seasonal risk in the North Atlantic, and at least a half-dozen sightings by other ships had been telegraphed to the Titanic. In modern business life, seemingly unsinkable giants such as Borders, Kodak and Polaroid didn’t respond nimbly to signals of the “sea change” in the digital era.

Don’t assume: Capt. E.J. Smith cancelled lifeboat drills and maintained speed even though it was difficult to spot icebergs. He attended a dinner party while sailing into an ice field in deceptively glassy seas.

Only 16 lifeboats were aboard, rather than 64 as the design engineer recommended, because the Titanic was supposed to be practically unsinkable, and in the worst case could stay afloat until reached by other ships. Nowadays, prudent business captains question every assumption and try to prepare for surprises.  

We’re in the same boat: First-class passengers and steerage ticketholders were among the 1,514 casualties a century ago. Swells and servants went down together. Now, when survival can depend on being a lean business, hierarchy is flatter than ever as companies stress teamwork, shared mission and navigating in the same direction.

Business leaders shouldn’t need an anniversary of titanic impact to recognize the value of staying on the lookout for changing climate, deceptive conditions and risky assumptions.

What take-away from the Titanic legend is most vivid for you?

Comment (1)

  1. Just two weeks into this Titanic anniversary year, another maritime mishap reminded us vividly that the space between cruising smoothly and disaster can be as thin as one decision-maker’s misjudgment.

    I refer to the Costa Concordia grounding yards from Tuscany’s shore during the first day of an Italian cruise. Thirty-two people died and 4,252 were franticaly evacuated Jan. 13 — three months, virtually to the day, before the centennial of the 1912 tragedy.

    Captain Francesco Schettino is accused of an imprudent, unauthorized detour. The impact on Carnival Corp., his employer, is huge in terms of monetary loss and image damage. The overall industry also is harmed by global reminders that cruise vacations can be dangerous, even deadly.

    –> The take-away: Like large vessels, enterprises of any size can hit a tipping point — literally — when an impulsive or reckless action undercuts planning, deliberation and teamwork.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *