I didn't see the iceberg!
And other Titanic communication mistakes
This paper will review the Titanic's relevant missteps and correlate subsequent lessons learned to the best practices for senior management communications. How to convey bad news effectively and techniques to avoid blame and excuses will also be covered.
Specifically, information concerning risky senior management directives, communication plans targeting outstanding issue conveyance, quality concerns, and exceptional decision making will be included. The reader will take away concrete strategies and tactics in taking accountability without losing credibility.
With this information a project manager should be able to avoid most disasters, or significantly lessen the damage while salvaging the wreck.
This year marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, on 14 April 1912. Now associated with colossal failure, the term ‘titanic’ can easily be applied to many senior management communication fiascos. Realizing which paths to avoid and which practices to implement in conveying difficult information can significantly increase project success.
The RMS Titanic was steaming across the North Atlantic from Southampton, UK to New York City, USA on its maiden voyage, with over 2,200 people on board. It was the largest ship afloat, the most comfortable and luxurious, and had advanced safety features (Wikipedia, 2012). The day before Titanic sailed, it met Board of Trade standards during the sea trial (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map). Yet, just two days after the voyage began it sank, with only 750 people surviving the disaster.
Senior management requires certain information to make the best decisions – to ensure their company won't ‘sink.’ As professional project managers we must supply them with that accurate information in a timely manner. Additionally, when issues arise, having responsive communications from team members and discerning the motivation behind their actions will aid in project success.
Full Speed Ahead
One contribution to the sinking of the Titanic was the speed at which it was traveling when it encountered the iceberg. Management demanded that the ship reach port earlier than originally expected to make a bigger splash for the newspaper headlines. Despite the known danger of icebergs in the area, the captain kept the speed at 18 to 22 knots (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map). Many times we face those same directives from senior management. They are attuned to the business needs and goals and may demand risky courses of action. For example, while you may be focused on meeting the deadline, senior management may be more concerned with retaining customers and future revenue; thus, they may want the date expedited to a degree that jeopardizes quality. What can be done?
First, remember the big picture. Senior management's reasons typically affect revenue, customer satisfaction, profitability, and possibly company or upper-level goals. The possible positive outcomes are tantalizing. As a project manager, it is critical to have enough business acumen to comprehend the validity of the needs and effectively communicate the most impactful risks due to a chosen path. Merely stating there is a risk is not persuasive enough, just like the ice warnings did not modify the actions of the Titanic's captain. Likewise, only stating the risk has a high numeric value will not make your point compelling. For example, you could say “The risk of not making the deadline due to delays in manufacturing is high,” or “is 6” on a scale of 1 to 9. More effectively though, use verbiage that senior management will find important to highlight the consequences if that risk becomes an issue. Add to the numeric risk communication, “The risk of not making the deadline due to delays in manufacturing will result in US$200,000 in revenue loss due to late time to market, a missed incremental sales opportunity of US$350,000, and the customer will not renew their contract.” You have now made a strong argument. This level of information adds work, and you will need to research the business factors affected. Note: you are not only looking at what is happening to THIS project, but also to future projects (opportunity costs). This shows senior management the critical components of the most successful project managers — that you are business-oriented with a strategic mindset.
Additionally, I have repeatedly witnessed project managers articulate a high risk and then the mitigation strategies, which cost the project time, money, and/or resources. Once presented, many times senior management's perceptions are that the probability and impact have become low. When mitigation plans don't significantly improve the probability and/or impact, this information must be well communicated so that senior management truly understands the resulting situation (Exhibit 1 – Risk Log). Mitigation plans should be presented with the risk's adjusted probability and impact values clearly understood.
Exhibit 1 – Risk Log
You should know when, as ‘captain’ of your project, you must stand up to senior management. One of the most outstanding success stories I've witnessed involved an amazing senior program manager. A tremendously complex project, including over 300 engineers in six countries, was the most important in the company. He was put in place after the project was in execution, following the removal of the original project manager due to poor leadership skills. Required to deliver in five months, it was forecasting seven months late. There was not one person on the entire team who believed it could deliver on time. The program manager realized that although late, and in the throes of the execution phase, he would have to re-plan the entire project. He told the CEO this information and the response was “No way – we don't have that kind of time. Just get it done.” His reply was potentially career-changing — he stated that if they wanted him to be the program manager, and they wanted it to be successful, then this is what was required. In the end, management apprehensively relented, but needed daily updates as the program manager called in all of the project leadership and many of the contributors and spent two weeks re-planning. In doing so, the team realized that it was actually possible (although not probable) that they could deliver on time. With the proper incentives, and perceived ability to affect the end result (buy-in), the team was now motivated to try to achieve the improbable. Once there was clear vision and a focused path established, the program manager utilized his outstanding leadership and communication skills to ensure success — and the project delivered on time. Discern when to stand up to senior management and then do it.
Another factor contributing to the Titanic's fate was misinterpretation and blockage of communications. Many people are not aware of the fact that there was another ship within rescue distance and lingering only 15 miles away (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map). The crew of the Californian actually saw the flares, but assumed they were celebratory. Additionally, the ship had suspended radio operations for the evening at 11:30 p.m. — they never received the distress call sent at 11:50 p.m. Eventually, there were two rules created as a result of this event — firing of rockets on high seas may now only be used for distress, and all radios must operate continuously (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map).
Just as with the Titanic, when issues arise, project communications may not elicit corrective actions in a timely manner or may not be received with the true intent. Understanding the potential blocks ahead of time is critical to implementing speedy recovery plans. Establish exceptional communication plans at the start of the project and review them regularly — not just who to contact but how often they need information, what kind of information will be provided, what information is required by each stakeholder, what the flow and response timing will be, and in what circumstances. Make sure the plans are well known and agreed upon by all critical stakeholders. Setting stakeholder expectations beforehand allows you to focus on the current issue.
There are many factors that delay action. Many of us have heard the ‘let's wait and see what happens’ plan. When faced with a laissez faire mentality, you must confront this attitude with a direct, proactive approach. If not, you may have lost valuable time and risk being unable to correct the issue. Don't turn off the radio.
I have collected a checklist that represents some best practices in issue transmission with regard to senior management. Each of them can be stated in a sentence or two for very brief but effective communication:
- State the purpose of the communication first and if action is required
- State the old assumptions and what has changed while being succinct
- Confirm the natural reactions of your audience, don't avoid bad news, don't overstate
- Quickly address the first concern — who is working on this and are they the right people
- Communicate if the root cause is known and details of the solution
- State high level impact details
- Be humble but knowledgeable about defining the problem
- If written, format in bulleted fashion for easy reading
- Note customer knowledge and impact
- State what is important to do and when
- Highlight the activities and results before further internal and external communication
- State the level of urgency felt by the team
- Communicate where the audience can find more information if it's available
Ensure the true intent of your message is conveyed. Creating clear communication is not an easy process. You must listen to your audience, understand their perspectives, validate that understanding through modeling, and then request feedback in your response. When working with senior management be direct, understand what information they need (i.e., technical, financial, customer impact), and ensure that it is accurate.
Whenever possible state the bottom line first. It is natural to want to save the bad news until you have communicated all the details first. Many of us have been caught partially through an explanation, when management requests the bottom line and moves forward without all the critical information. One way to avoid this is to state the bottom line first but with caveats. Senior management is then willing to listen to the details. For example, rather than say “We will miss the cost targets due to misappropriation of funds.” You would say, “We will miss the cost targets due to misappropriation of funds, and there are three areas that need to be understood to get a complete handle on the situation: resource availability, project priority, and quality concerns.” At that point, you will have the floor to finish the discussion about each before they jump to conclusions too quickly. In this way, you can avoid firing a distress flare and have it received without the importance it was intended.
Why did the Titanic sink? We know it hit an iceberg, which tore holes in the hull, and the bulkheads filled with water. Both design and some materials were not created to withstand this situation. The ship could withstand four watertight compartments filling with water, but five were breached; additionally, the rivets were made of poor quality wrought iron (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map). The compartments and rivets would have been fine if the ship just had to float. But, the Titanic found an iceberg.
Many times we approve known quality deficiencies because the probability of the edge case occurring is low. It is when the high impact risks actually become issues that your project can fail. Not adequately assessing and responding to high impact risks (regardless of probability) may be disastrous.
One way to ensure the best possible outcome is to assess the high impact risks by the effects they may cause to company goals — profitability, customer satisfaction, safety, etc. (in particular, evaluate quality risks when safety is a primary concern). Proactively apply your strategic mindset and communicate the potential quality consequences to senior management's biggest concerns. When they then decide to ‘accept the risk’ — you will not lose credibility if the worst happens.
Once I worked alongside a ‘senior’ program manager (at least by title). He was extraordinarily concerned with making the customer happy and allowed a multitude of changes at inappropriate times; in doing so, instead of the typical three revisions per year and the associated costs of manufacturing and testing those revisions before additional changes, he had had a company record of 25 revisions in one year. He made changes constantly without prior knowledge of how the previous changes affected the outcome. He felt pressured by the customer and indulged their demands, which succeeded in significantly increasing costs eventually resulting in product failure. Ultimately, he was fired. His best recourse would have been to help the customer realize how to prioritize the requests and analyze each with respect to impacts on the requirements of timeline, cost, and quality.
Assessing risks by impact alone is another activity that is important to being successful. Sometimes if we review risks only from an overall probability x impact scoring model, the high impact risks may be diluted by low probability ratings and then either disregarded or overlooked. Don't be quality ‘wreckless.’
I Didn't See the Iceberg!
Another cause in the sinking of the Titanic was the late identification of the iceberg by the lookouts. Most people don't know that in addition to the unusual weather (completely calm, so that the water breaking at the base of the iceberg was difficult to see) the 60 pairs of binoculars were safely locked away in their cabinet (Galley, 2011, Titanic Cause Map). Unfortunately, the key to the cabinet was left at the origination point! Would the lookouts have been able to see the iceberg in time? Could over 1500 people have been saved? Could US$7.5 million dollars in the loss of the ship have been averted by a single key? Did anyone consider breaking the US$2 lock to utilize the binoculars? We'll never know.
Sometimes issues are communicated less by facts and more by trying to remove personal blame. We all want to be perceived as capable and without as much error as possible. Therefore, you may have team members that delay in communicating bad news or avoid the depth of the problem. As project managers, we work to create a trusting environment that allows for issues to be easily expressed. It is critical that we address issues by learning the cause, rather than by who caused it, and address those concerns first. Of course we may need to have private conversations regarding performance, but those should be completed after the crisis has abated.
When an issue emerges, who takes responsibility? The captain went down with Titanic. The best leaders are accountable for the project failures and give credit to the team for the successes. Only taking responsibility for issues, however, doesn't help the business results or the company.
As communicators of these issues to senior management many times we also fall into the same pattern of postponing notification of bad news. Fear is a big de-motivator. Understand the origin of the emotion: fear of failure, of being seen as incompetent, of letting down the team or supervisor, of loss of pay or job. It is natural to want to find a scapegoat (blame) or produce an inaccurate or incomplete reason (excuse). Most executives don't respond well to hearing blame, circling the issues, or excuses. The best leaders overcome those fears with self-awareness, humility, accountability, a strong desire to move forward with integrity, and focusing on achieving the best possible outcome.
As a project management office (PMO) director, I had a very experienced project manager with a project issue that required the vice president's decision. The VP asked her to prepare the details, and we entered the conference room. Using an overhead projector to consider an email stream, she proceeded to move back and forth commenting about ‘this point’ and scrolling back to find ‘that point.’ Finally, the VP said, “I cannot compare apples to apples in the way you presented this to make a decision. Come back when you have this problem well laid out.” It had never occurred to me that a senior project manager didn't know how to effectively express the problem's details for an executive. I then created a Decision Matrix in Microsoft Excel and taught my project managers how to use it well (Exhibit 2 – Decision Matrix). It is in the gathering of information and the expert use of the simple form that are the keys to its extreme successes.
Exhibit 2 - Decision Matrix
Directions for use:
- it will take you up to a week to fill out accurately — brainstorming, research, validation, and the agreement process; do not speed through the process
- utilize the core team and other experts
- validate the data!!
- one page only (critical for presenting)
- adjust row height/column width/font/color as needed
- high level description of the issue or change (10 words or less)
- add additional categories if critical to company goals (i.e., safety, etc.)
- evaluate first the reasonable options, then cut to the best options
- place the team's recommended solution in the #1 (far left) column
- delete any columns (solutions) not used
- rename the solutions to reflect the options
- if possible, solutions will not be used due to unacceptable impacts, save that matrix to a back-up slide with the detailed determinant in that category
• this helps when decision makers come up with that solution too and you can show that you identified it but discounted it due to certain information
- use “N/A” in a field if not applicable, or “no impact”; do not leave blanks because it may appear as though you didn't evaluate that category
- use bullets as necessary
- be precise but succinct in the verbiage — share details verbally when presenting
• example: in Resources, do not write “2 FTEs” — instead write: “2 exp. Prod. Eng. — 3 months” (you would state during the meeting for comprehension: 2 experienced product engineers are required for 3 months, full time)
- the fields must reflect the impact of choosing that option for that category
• example: financials could reflect revenue, NPV, sales volume, etc. (or all)
- The Meeting
- always best if used in person — the Decision Matrix is NOT meant to be an attachment to an email
- once all options and impacts are thoroughly understood and documented in the matrix, gather the decision makers in a room (if possible) for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the solutions' complexity
- present details in the order that makes sense to you
• don't worry, decision makers will jump ahead and read where they are most concerned while you are talking about something else; this is ok, and actually facilitates quicker decisions
- ensure experts are available for questions and have reviewed the material prior to the meeting so there is no disagreement in the presented statements
- facilitate well or employ a facilitator; create discussion — bring out all conflicts and concerns
- be business-like, remove emotion – the data in this format speak volumes
- Wrap up
- ensure you have a decision made at the end of the meeting, and that everyone understands the impacts of the outcome
- ensure actions are documented, communicated, and followed through
- follow up afterward with reasons why the solution was chosen and why the others were not
- document for historical data so that you don't rehash the details at a later date
If you utilize the Decision Matrix well by gathering the right information from key resources, validating the data, ensuring the team agrees with the solutions, holding a well-facilitated meeting to bring out all points of view and mandate that a decision is made — it works extraordinarily well. I had a project manager who needed a decision from three very reluctant senior managers, as the determined options were all unsatisfactory. In this type of situation in the past, these decision makers had chosen not to make a decision rather than risk making a bad decision. He utilized the Decision Matrix exceptionally well, had many uncomfortable discussions during the meeting, and finally required a decision. The senior managers realized that there would not be any more new data, and were forced to decide. Had no decision been made at that time as was typical, the result would have been disastrous. The choice ultimately kept the company from losing over US$2 million in revenue.
When you supply senior management with excuses and blame you are seen as incompetent. They are looking for a leader who understands the big picture, takes charge, accurately identifies the root causes, comes up with viable options, and recommends the best course of action. If your oversight was the reason — you ARE accountable and responsible. Admit to those errors and demonstrate how you will salvage the wreck.
Titanic can be a beacon of light for a project manager. Fraught with missteps that culminated in causing the downfall of the greatest ship ever created at the time, a skilled project manager can learn from those communication mistakes and ensure his ‘ship’ sails successfully.
Concern for moving ‘full speed ahead’ at the peril of unacceptable risks, knowing business principles, having a strategic mindset, and understanding when to buck senior management are all crucial.
Implementing a thorough and detailed communication plan and setting expectations for all crucial stakeholders may alleviate much of the ‘deafening silence’ of blocked communications.
Ensure your quality isn't ‘wrecked’ by accurately and effectively communicating high impact risks.
Avoid blaming and making excuses — take accountability for errors. Ensure senior management has the best decision-making process with options and impacts to keep your ‘ship afloat.’
There are key guidelines in communicating with senior management. Be direct — don't circle the issues. Get to the bottom line quickly without emotion. Understand that profitability, customer satisfaction, and company goals are paramount. Don't avoid or delay delivering unpleasant news. Be succinct and accurate. Give options with impacts and recommendations.
If a project manager is proactive, there is more of a chance to either diminish the negative outcome or avoid the wreck altogether. You can lessen the damage by assessing risks accurately and not moving ‘full steam ahead’ OR prevent a disaster through the use of lessons learned so the binoculars aren't forgotten, flares aren't mistaken for celebration, and when there is expected smooth sailing and the team needs a break — the radios aren't turned off!
When you are accountable for your part in the issues, for moving the project forward, and for communicating well — you will not lose credibility. As captain of the ship, you want to get the risks and opportunities for success in front of senior management so they appreciate just what they are asking of a skilled core team. You want to stay afloat while taking responsibility for the actions of the team and executing the decisions of senior management. You won't be able to avoid all the challenges, but you can prevent the wreck.
Galley, M. (November, 2011). Titanic Cause Map ™ (2010) poster. Cause Mapping I, Effective Root Cause Analysis training through Think Reliability, Inc. presented at the Cause Mapping I training, Houston, TX.
Titanic. (2012). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titanic
© 2012, Cindy Margules, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, British Columbia