The fascinating part of the sinking of the Titanic is that it was actually a combination of many different factors. You could change one of many different things to stop the sinking.
Can business learn anything from the sinking of the Titianic (Attribution: Wikicommons - Willy Stower)
I have a saying that goes success is individual but failure requires team work, because normally many people need to fail to cause the whole team to fail. Let's look at why the Titanic sank the way it did and how it relates to business.
The alignment of the heavens
Sounds crazy, but it was actually the position of both the sun and the moon that resulted in higher tides and subsequently more icebergs.
The lesson to take away from this is that sometimes things fail for factors we don't understand or are distantly related.
Let's blame the Irish
The Titanic was built in Ireland and while it seems like a cheap shot to blame the Irish in fact there was a problem caused in construction. The Titanic was meant to be built using steel rivets but there was an under supply in Ireland so they changed them to iron rivets near the bow. There is no hole in the side of the Titanic from the iceberg, instead there metal plates buckled as the iron rivets gave way right up to the start of the steel rivets (computer modelling also confirms that the plates would not have buckled if steep rivets had been used.)
The Irish did a great job in constructing the Titanic, except for the rivets (Attribution: Wikicommons - Robert John Welch)
This is great lesson for outsourcing or just taking something from design to implementation. We need to make sure that wrong compromises have not been made. In fact many disasters have occurred in the transition from design to construction.
Great ideas might not go far enough
People like to make fun of the fact that the designers of the Titanic had water tight compartments that only didn't go up all the way. In fact this design was revolutionary and made the Titanic very safe. In fact one less watertight compartment had been damaged the Titanic wouldn't have sunk at all because of this great design.
We should always realise that good ideas can be better.
Smooth sailing can be dangerous
The sinking of the Titanic happened on a clear night on a glass smooth sea. If there had been waves they probably would have seen the iceberg earlier.
Actually iceberg that sank the Titanic (Attribution: Wikicommons - Public Domain)
When everything seems too perfect maybe you need to be more careful.
Full steam ahead
A decision was made to steam at full speed despite iceberg warnings. This contributed to the disaster.
High risk, high return strategies lead to the Global Financial Crisis. It doesn't always pay to go as fast as you can.
Response was too late and too early
If they had not seen the iceberg they would have run straight into it. This would have have actually saved the ship. If they had seen the iceberg earlier they would have turned in time.
When you respond too late to things you might as well have kept on going full steam ahead.
This wasn't the first Titanic style disaster
It turns out that in the 19th century there was another ship sinking similar to the Titanic. It was also considered to the be near on unsinkable.
We have to take heed of the problems and failures in the past to avoid them. It is amazing how many business leaders think they are immune to the failures of the past.
The captain of the Titanic was very experienced
Edward Smith was the White Star Line's most experienced captain, which is why he was the captain of their best ship. Many people have argued that he ignored the iceberg warnings because he felt that the ship would have been able to turn in time if they saw an iceberg. However the Titanic was far too big and the rudder far too small (The Titanic's rudder was designed to reduce drag while relying on tug boats in port for real maneuvering).
The Titanic had a small rudder as it was expected that tug boats would help in maneuver in port (Attribution: Wikicommons - Robert John Welch)
While we should respect experience we should also be wary of anyone who relies too much on their experience. The best example of this are doctors. Most people expect older doctors to provide better treatment, but studies have found younger doctors know more about the state-of-the-art medicine and this gives better outcomes.
The Captain went down with his ship (Attribution: Wikicommons - unknown)
The missing binoculars
Now this item could be controversial because some people have argued that the binoculars of the time were not very good. Also they were not standard equipment on ships at the time. However we do know that they spotted icebergs on the horizon but thought they were perhaps mist. Binoculars might have helped to them to identify them earlier.
There is no excuse not to provide people with the equipment that they need.
What happened after the collision killed more people
Everyone knows that the Titanic didn't have enough lifeboats. What is more, most of the lifeboats weren't filled to capacity. Finally while there were boats in the area, none responded to the distress flares and signals. No one on the Titanic needed to die.
Even if the Titanic had enough of these, people might still have died (Attribution: Wikicommons - Public Domain)
Things go wrong in business all the time. How we respond to things going wrong is as important as preventing them in the first place.
So can we learn from this disaster
No business collapses for a single reason, just as there is no single reason behind the sinking of the Titanic. The main lesson here is to realise that there could be hundred weaknesses in your business today and by luck it survives or even grows. We need to be vigilant though to make sure there are no weaknesses.