IT Project Lessons from Titanic, Part 1

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Most people are familiar with Titanic's story because of the media attention it's received in recent years. Unfortunately, most of the focus has been on the last days of the voyage and the disaster itself. Yet the four-year construction project is important to consider because of the countless decisions made that had a significant impact on the operation and what became a spectacular failure. This article examines the first stage of Titanic's project--the business requirements--and highlights how bad decisions in this early stage can have a detrimental effect later in operation. In essence, this article is a case study for today's IT projects.

Many myths surround Titanic's disaster. One of them is that she raced across the Atlantic trying to win the "blue ribbon" and break the Atlantic crossing record; another is that the shortage of lifeboats was due to project cost-cutting and overall project budget trimming. Close examination of Titanic's project indicates otherwise. In 1909, White Star had an aging fleet of liners and was finding it difficult to compete against stiff competition. Cunard and North German Lloyd lines had newer and faster ships, in service and on the drafting table, that offered better service. White Star considered a retrofit of the existing fleet as a countermeasure but decided that action would be inadequate. The emergence of new steel technologies provided White Star an opportunity to build a new fleet of "super" liners. This was a major investment for White Star, as any new liners were likely to be in service for at least 20 years.

Likewise, most businesses today need to carefully examine whether a new IT solution or infrastructure is required as opposed to a retrofit or enhancement of existing capabilities. The use of emerging technologies often provides an opportunity to leapfrog the competition.

For Titanic's architects, it was critical to get the design right and to base it on a sound business strategy. Their business strategy focused on luxury, primarily for the first class, and on creating a crossing experience unmatched by competitors. However, the second and third classes were not ignored. Titanic's second class was equivalent to the first on other ships, and likewise third to second. So all the key customer market segments were addressed in a single ship. It was a significant shift in the thinking of the time, when new liners were built primarily for speed to capture the prestigious blue ribbon.

Likewise, with today's business solutions, the focus should be on addressing the target audience and preferred customer segments with a customer experience that is so desirable that it will retain existing customers and attract new customers. This needs to be done across multiple channels. However, the company must also provide basic customer service to segments seeking a different value proposition and offering less value to the organization.

To support the business strategy of luxury, White Star heavily invested in new, emerging technologies. One important characteristic of luxury on a ship is increased space with larger state rooms, cabins, and function rooms. This required a more voluminous ship--the length had to be increased and the hull had to be wider and rounder. In choosing this strategy, the architects were deliberately not building a fast ship, which would require a sleek, narrow hull. Also, because speed wasn't a concern, the power requirements were not as great, so a smaller engine and fewer boilers and coal bunkers provided more passenger space.

Likewise, with today's business solutions, response of service may not be as critical as certain business functionality that enhances the customer experience. New, emerging technologies offer an opportunity to redefine solutions in a new way.

The business case for the three new liners was solid, with a payback of only two years into the operation of the first liner, although the construction project was a lengthy six years for delivery of all three. Project cost-cutting was never considered an option with Titanic because of the solid business case and the importance of the overriding business strategy. From the outset, no expense was spared; the architects invested in the latest technologies for everything from the luxurious splendor, to the functional requirements, to the non-functional requirements of the safety systems. The latter included a double hull (the bottom space was divided into watertight compartments), bulkheads and electric doors, and advanced water pumps. The architects limited the number of lifeboats, which were deemed as an added safety feature. They would be useful if Titanic had to rescue passengers from other ships in distress.

Likewise, today's IT projects need to carefully discern both functional to non-functional requirements and build a cost/benefit analysis for each. A mistake in non-functional requirements can be far more costly to rectify than a mistake in functional requirements.

So why are speed and lifeboats so important to Titanic's story? Ultimately, these were significant contributing factors to the disaster. First, when the iceberg was sighted, the ship had reached maximum speed, even though it was ploughing through a dangerous ice field. Second, there were only enough lifeboats for half the passengers and crew. From a project perspective, did the early design decisions (broad hull design and advanced safety features) lead to the contributing factors of the disaster? The answer is probably "yes," because the sheer size of the ship, the advanced safety features, and the latest in technologies set the perception amongst White Star officers and crew that Titanic was invincible. Titanic could survive any situation, so greater risks were taken. The public had been told that Titanic was practically unsinkable and accepted this.

Likewise, today's IT projects need to ensure that as much attention is paid to the non- functional as the functional requirements. Very often, the former are sacrificed because they are less visible and their importance is not highlighted to executive decision-makers.

The early design decisions were good because the business strategy was sound. However, Titanic's architects failed because they did not follow through and test their assumptions thoroughly to determine if the advanced safety features and new technologies were adequate in a worst-case scenario.

Likewise, today's IT projects need to test assumptions with walkthroughs of the possible worst-case scenarios that the business solution could potentially face. The risk needs to be carefully assessed with the probability of it happening.


Today, we can make many comparisons between Titanic and a modern IT project. For example, IT project problems surface days, months, or even years after the project is completed and in production because of decisions made early in the requirements stage. These decisions typically set the direction for the project. IT projects may be successful on deployment and pass a broad number of "standard" tests (system, performance, and acceptance) yet still fail catastrophically in operation. After all, only 25% of all IT projects are successful--a number that has been continuously verified in various surveys (Source: "Chaos, a recipe for success," Standish Group, 1994, 1996, 1998). The success of IT projects should be measured not on deployment but well after the solution has been in production for a while. Metrics should be closely tied to the overall impact to the business. Titanic's story helps us better understand the relationship between design and operation, the significance of the decision-making process, and the way things can go horribly wrong in operation.

The next installment of IT Project Lessons from Titanic will look in more detail at the compromises made in the design stage of projects.

Mark Kozak-Holland is a Senior Management Consultant with IBM Global Services. He has been working with mission-critical solutions since 1985, specifically with the availability of business services to the end-user. Mark is passionate about history and contends that paying attention to how historical projects and emerging technologies of the past solved complex problems of the day provides valuable insight into how to solve today's more challenging business problems.

Mark's book On-line, On-time, On-budget: Titanic Lessons for the e-Business Executive (IBM Press) is about delivering Internet projects in a world where on time and on budget is not enough. IT professionals need to be on-line--connecting to the Internet and dealing with the 24x7 expectations of customers and partners. The book is designed to help the business executive successfully maneuver through the ice floes of IT project management in an industry with a notoriously high project failure rate.

Mark can be contacted via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..