Seeking inspiration from the Titanic for project management mistakes
The Titanic was the envy of the great maritime nations of the world! Its construction can teach us about project management mistakes.


In speed, in comfort, in beauty, in equipment, she was a masterpiece. She was so big and huge that passengers could walk for four and a half miles without exploring all of her wonders. No wonder she was one of the greatest man made projects in the world. Its builders must be very skilled in project management

Why was the project initiated?

The Titanic is one of the Olympic class ship built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard for the While Star Liner. The other two ships were Olympic and Britannic. There was a strong business case to build the ships. Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic were built to compete with the ocean liners Lusitania and Mauretania. Owned by rivals Cunard liners, the Lusitania was renowned for her luxury, whilst the Mauretania was known for its speeding records across the Atlantic. White Star Line had decided not to attempt to compete on speed but rather to build larger, more reliable and more luxurious ships than their rivals.

The different phases of the project

The building of the Titanic was sequential using the waterfall methodology. It started with a short planning phase, followed by a design phase of about 7 months and then came the construction phase which was one of the longest phase as it took three years. In this phase, only the shell along with the decks were completed. Then the ship was launched in water, and the fitting out phase began which lasted 11 months and involved building inside the ship itself such as ball room, cabins and furnishing them and also fitting them with propulsion systems, steering systems and communication systems. In the end the ship was to be taken out for sea trails (testing in today’s project management vocabulary) for 6 to 8 weeks.

Project compromised by false assumptions and overconfidence

The Titanic illustrates starkly some project management mistakes and oversight. The roots of the disaster were created in the project, with compromises to the design (safety features) and while testing the ship. In the last phases of its construction, on the insistence of White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay new features and changes were included at the detriment of security. For example: they downsized the number of life boats to just 16 as they blocked the first-class passengers view of the promenade on the deck! The architects assumed that in case of a collision the ship would remain afloat long enough for all to get transferred to a rescue ship.  

Twice when its sister ship the Olympic had an accident, the Titanic was cannibalized as its workforce was transferred to get the Olympic back into service. This is a classic example of shared resources being shifted to another project during an emergency. Since the Titanic was behind in schedule the ship’s builders crashed the schedule by increasing the workforce to make sure it is was not delivered a day late.

Also, other compromises during implementation made the disaster inevitable, initially the sea trails were supposed to last 8 weeks, the architects were so overconfident that they conducted sea trials for only half a day. This is an excellent example of bad project risk management due to overconfidence and false assumptions.

Once the ship set sail there were other issues. The lookouts in the crow’s nest didn’t have their binoculars. They complained but officers refused to share theirs because of rank.  The Marconigram received ice warning from other ships, but the wireless operators were overloaded by commercial traffic. They prioritized the messages of the luxury travelers. Hence, the ice warning messages from other ships were ignored. The Ships selling point and hallmark was luxury, not speed. However, during that maiden Titanic voyage, White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay reportedly pressured Captain Edward Smith to increase speed despite the risk of icebergs. When the ship first hit the iceberg in the bottom they thought that the shock was minor. Ismay and Smith assumed the Titanic was safe to sail again. These are some classic example of lack of stakeholders (sponsors) management and leadership.

While no one blunder or mishap is responsible for its sinking, the cumulative effect of all of them made the disaster even more likely. The crew was ill prepared to handle a disaster of this proportion. So, in project management, one should monitor the project closely by following up every detail and ensuring regular project controls. In 1912 the Titanic sank with a loss of 1,328 lives, the greatest 20th century maritime disaster.


Titanic Facts