November 17, 2017

Titanic Lessons for Leadership and Communication

By Pamela Ashby

As the author of the ‘Communication and Engagement’ chapter of The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook, Ranjit Sidhu well understands how to make an impact when she communicates. Presenting in the very last session of the day at PMI Synergy, to an audience that had been absorbing new information for the best part of eight hours, could have been tricky. In the event, it was a triumphant finale to an engaging day.

Ranjit’s presentation Titanic lessons in project leadership and developing effective teams demonstrated the communication skills she promotes. With the help of Jack Pinter and his amazing team of actors, with several members of the audience, she dramatised the Titanic story told in her book Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership, highlighting the leadership behaviours that contributed to the Titanic tragedy.

Creating a narrative and telling a story

For communication to be truly successful, it needs to connect with people’s emotions as well as their rational minds. Telling stories is a powerful way to get people fully engaged, as stories need both the creative and analytical sides of the brain to be fully involved. People are both absorbing the information and imagining what is happening as the story unfolds, at the same time. Stories allow room for interpretation so that people engage with the information at a deeper level and become ‘a part of it’.

The power of ‘just enough’

Ranjit needed to show how leadership failures, cognitive biases, and poor team performance contributed to the Titanic tragedy. She wanted to deepen audience engagement by communicating through multiple senses. On stage there were cardboard boxes, large strips of black plastic, and a bucket. Not a sophisticated set, but just enough so that the audience could ‘live through’ the timeline of the story. We saw the Titanic being built (box by box). We saw the hull being shaped (the black plastic) and the iconic four funnels being added.

Tapping into emotions

We felt the pain of the designer when his innovative lifeboat solution was undermined. We empathised with the mariner who felt unable to tell his senior officers that he couldn’t test the temperature of the seawater because his rope wasn’t long enough – even though he told one of the passengers. The culture was not transparent and collaborative, such as organisations now work towards. It was strictly a hierarchical, command-and-control regime.

At the end of her book, Ranjit suggests that it wasn’t a lack of engineering excellence that made the Titanic sink, it was ‘a failure to realise the importance of those communication and leadership problems that could have made it successful’.

She concludes with a quotation from Jacob Bronowski:

“The world can only be grasped by action, not contemplation.”

Learning is only useful when it is turned into action, so Ranjit suggests her readers focus on three things:

  1. What are the beliefs and assumptions reinforced in your environment?
  2. Collaborate with stakeholders to highlight any gaps between outcomes and their expectations.
  3. Consider if team dynamics are creating barriers to communication.

The Titanic story proves to be an excellent vehicle to demonstrate the importance of all the culture and leadership issues that we still grapple with today.

To request a copy of Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership