… arrogance, complacency and (lack of) resilience

This year marks the 99th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The ship sank 99 years ago today, April 15th.

Everybody has heard the story of the Titanic – but do you know about the ‘Titanic Effect’ and how it could wreck your risk/BC programs?

This ‘Titanic Effect’ arises when the belief in the level of risk mitigations that have been put in place lead the people who need to detect and act on threats becoming complacent.

Despite the investment in risk mitigations, this effect will reduce the overall resilience of an organisation.

History is not always the best predictor of the future

We need to learn from history in order to avoid repeating it – but it is not a perfect predictor of what is in store for us.

Taleb tells the famous story of the Turkey who is fed for 1,000 days – convincing the bird that humans really care for its welfare. Then on day 1,001 the model falls apart!

When you read these two quotes, attributed to Captain Edward John Smith who commanded the Titanic, they seem to imply a degree of arrogance about the risks of accidents at sea.

“When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. …… I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story”

Would thinking like this indicate that the person may blindly accept some risks?

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.”

No surprise then that they did not have lifeboat drills on the Titanic.

Similar thinking by the management of the White Star Line meant that they only carried 20 lifeboats – these could only accommodate  1,178 of the 3,500 passengers and crew on board.

Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” -J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line

Of course, after the event there are some who will point out that they saw the disaster coming. But too often they just go along with the mainstream when the risk was not being adequately managed in the first place.

“You weren’t there at my first meeting with Ismay. To see the little red marks all over the blueprints. First thing I thought was: ‘Now here’s a man who wants me to build him a ship that’s gonna be sunk.’ We’re sending gilded egg shells out to sea.” -Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards

Recently I introduced readers of this blog to the Cynefin framework as  tool to aid in understanding resilience.

The framework talks about a ‘Simple Domain’, where we understand cause and effect. ‘Best Practice’ is an appropriate guide and the organisation is able to exploit opportunities as they arise.

But sometimes our success and progress is actually a weakness. The Cynefin framework positions the simple domain adjacent to the chaotic domain, and in some representation the boundary is depicted as a cliff. Both are for a a good reason – the most frequent collapses into chaos occur because success has bred complacency.

This shift into the domain of chaos can bring about catastrophic failure. This example is not just related to organisations (and some countries recently) but also applies to technologies that were perceived to be dominant but then suddenly subject to disruptive changes.

There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.” -Phillip Franklin, White Star Line Vice-President

Creating a false sense of security, a false notion of being able to control situations, compromises our ability to cope. The resources we need to be able to adapt have been consumed.

“I thought her unsinkable and I based my opinion on the best expert advice.” -Phillip Franklin, White Star Line Vice President

“The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” -Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards

Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky describe the Titanic as a classic example of this problem. (Risk and Culture, p196)

“where the new ability to  control most kind of leaks led to the understocking of lifeboats, the abandonment of safety drills and disregard of reasonable caution in navigation”

Where to look for this  ‘Titanic Effect’ in our own backyards.

  • The mindset of “this cannot happen to us”
    • It is a cultural problem, you need to use cultural interventions to change that mindset
  • The fantasy that we are prepared
    • We have a BC/DR Plan, we have a DR Site a Work Area Recovery site
      • Make sure you are doing lifeboat drills – real rehearsal and adaptive exercising, not just plan walkthroughs.
    • Do you have enough lifeboats?
      • Too often recovery strategies can only be sustained for 2-3 days, know your real limits.
      • Make sure you know what syndicated seats at your recovery provider means – and who else you are contending with.
  • Plan-centric approaches to BC (the binder on the shelf model)
    • little real capability embed into culture, or probably engagement from senior management
      • Again count your lifeboats and run some real drills
    • You are likely to have no adaptive capacity
  • Finally, and perhaps one of the worst,
    • Compliance processes that tell people they have “done BC” or are resilient
    • It will come as a surprise WHEN something serious happens, and you are not prepared.

Plan, Do, Check, Act – implies that you review periodically. Are you checking that your underlying assumptions are valid?

Where else might we look to find markers of the ‘Titanic Effect’?

By the way, next year to mark the 100th, there will be a commemorative cruise to follow the original course. Any takers?


Footnote: Source for the various quotes used in this post