Just think about building the Titanic….
It was a huge undertaking, both in terms of sheer scale, and because of the complexity caused by integrating so many new technologies in a way that had never been done before. This would be a huge investment.
On projects of this complexity, a ‘sanity check’ should be carried out at the start, asking simple questions like:
- Will this address the underlying problems? Is this feasible and doable? What are the possibilities? What could go wrong and how can we prepare for that?
A useful model for doing this is the Disney Creativity Strategy, from the Walt Disney Company; this was modelled by Robert Dilts. It suggests looking at ideas and plans from three different perspectives – firstly from an innovative, creative perspective to come up with the ideas. Then these ideas should go through a reality check – is it actually doable and how? The third step is to become the critic to really test the idea for robustness and risks to think about all the downsides.
Step 1 – Dreamer mode
In this space people are encouraged to imagine completely new ideas and different options. In the case of the Titanic, Bruce Ismay was clearly creative in coming up with the idea of the ‘luxury experience’, no one else had imagined that yet.
Step 2 – Realist mode
This is when the ideas are turned into a plan. How will we approach this? What is realistically possible? This step provides the opportunity to investigate logistics, time, money aspects, and make trade-offs where they are needed.
Step 3 – Critic mode
Now, play devil’s advocate and intentionally look at it from the perspective of what could go wrong.
Where are the flaws? Will the customers actually appreciate this? Is there anything here that may be redundant, or unnecessary? What about from a technical or legal perspective – have all the safety and regulatory angles been covered?
This method works best where different people step into the roles completely, even to the extent of moving to different rooms when exploring these different positions. Stakeholders, team members and customers can all take part to ensure a fully balanced approach.
For the Titanic project, Ismay seemed to be the sole representative presenting the requirements of the first class passengers. There is little evidence of research or customer involvement to check how important some of these may have been.
Other directors from White Star don’t appear to have been consulted, nor were other expert opinions sought to test out ideas. While our main players felt they were on sound ground and that their innovations and plans were well thought out, it is likely that they had a fairly narrow view of the criteria that could make this venture successful.
Ismay’s lifestyle in high society meant he knew what customers wanted, but this made it difficult for him to step back and look at things objectively as a leader of White Star. This becomes important later, when decisions were made that prioritised luxury over safety in the specification – but, based on what?
This illustration of Disney’s Creativity Strategy is based on an extract from Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership by Ranjit Sidhu.