Tale of Titanic an effective tool for teaching modern lessons

The sinking of the RMS Titanic and the events leading up to it provide some useful life lessons for everyone from business people to schoolchildren.
Children's author Frieda Wishinsky, who incorporated the tale of the Titanic in her book SOS! Titanic!, says kids enjoy the story of the doomed ocean liner because it has the drama of the unexpected. (CBC)

As the old adage goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and for some enterprising authors, the tragic sinking of the Titanic represents the perfect tool with which to frame that lesson.

Mark Kozak-Holland, a project management professional and author based in Stouffville, Ont., uses historical examples to teach modern business lessons in a series of books and seminars called Lessons from History. 

In one of his books, Project Management Blunders, Kozak-Holland explains how the Titanic story perfectly illustrates why some projects are doomed to fail from the start.

"I was invited to do a post-mortem on a failed project where decisions had been made that had led to its failure," he said. "I looked around for a case study and was advised to use a historical example that people can readily understand and identify with and also a case study that has a very clear project phase and then an operations phase — that's how I came across Titanic."

Because the Titanic tragedy has been etched into popular culture over a span of 100 years, it resonates with a wide range of business people and allows them to relate to the problems the project's leaders encountered, said Kozak-Holland.

"You can really summarize what went wrong by the project's competing objectives," he said. "The primary objective for the architects was to build a safe ship but the primary objective of the White Star Line (Titanic's owners) was customer experience — everything was wrapped around customer experience."

The professionals involved in designing and building the Titanic were lulled into complacency by White Star Line, says Kozak-Holland.

Mark Kozak-Holland uses the Titanic tale to illustrate common blunders made by business people working on large projects. (Roma Andrusiak/CBC)

"The architects recognized that they had made compromises, but they fell into a groupthink where they didn't do anything about it," he said. "They didn't take on the moral responsibility of trying to rectify things. They just fell into a pattern of going along with the rest of the group. At the end of it, they were completely convinced that the ship was practically unsinkable."

Kozak-Holland says that while most people focus on the iceberg as the main element responsible for sinking the Titanic, he thinks the more significant aspects were the human errors that were made even before the ship set sail on that fateful April day in 1912.

"Typically, projects fail because of people issues, so the Titanic case study helps bring to the surface very subtle issues that are actually quite difficult to discuss," he said.

Story easy for children to grasp

The cover of Frieda Wishinsky's book about two children who travel back in time to warn the crew of the Titanic that the ship is about to crash into an iceberg. (Owl Kids Books Inc.)

Toronto-based children's author Frieda Wishinsky has also found a way to incorporate the Titanic into her work. She says the tale of the ocean liner, despite its tragic elements, is very accessible to younger audiences, because they can relate to the multiple facets of the story.

"There's that drama of the unexpected," she said. "It's a story about errors, about luck — it's stuff kids can understand. You think someone else's life is perfect, and something happens to shatter that, and it's just a very human story."

Her book SOS! Titanic! tells the story of two children who travel back in time aboard a magic sled to try and warn Titanic's crew about their impending collision with an iceberg. She says when speaking with schoolchildren about the book, she is able to focus on telling entertaining stories based on historical truths.

"One of the interesting things I find when I go to schools is what we think is reality and what we think is made up," she said. "When kids talk about the Titanic, they think about the [James Cameron] film, so it's a great occasion to talk about what's real and what's made up."

Titanic lessons provide business insight

Kozak-Holland says his Titanic seminars, which range from a one-hour presentation to a full eight-hour workshop, have been well received by people in many different sectors, including those working in non-profit organizations, government agencies and financial institutions.

"This case study provides a vehicle for discussions about wars that people have within projects and whether people are overstepping their boundaries," he said. "That's exactly what happened with Titanic — the project sponsor [J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line] completely went outside of his box.

"He should have had a very specific role, but he went beyond that and basically compromised the project as a result."

He says Ismay, facing intense competition from the other major British shipping line, Cunard, was focused on launching Titanic as soon as possible, even though the boat had not gone through a proper testing phase.

"This was a massive mistake," Kozak-Holland said. "Most business people recognize today that you can't just launch [something new] by putting it straight into production; you have to test it out.

"People find this such a powerful case study, because if you look at it holistically, you can see the comparative phases to what we would do today, and you can see the blunders that were being made as they went along."