The first lesson of the Titanic disaster

The first lesson of the Titanic disaster is that ships with holes in them sink! How methodically interrogating project assumptions can reduce the risk (and expense) of a project failing at an advanced stage.

Scientists, by their nature, are curious about the world and how it works. In high performing organisations, that curiosity leads to novel ideas and the projects based on those ideas can change the world. Realizing this potential requires a focused development plan that will enable the optimum application of scarce financial and human resources.

Most companies have a tried and tested roadmap for development and robust testing of new products and processes that fall within their area of expertise. However, the more innovative the idea, the less applicable standard regimes tend to be. By applying engineering principles in a defined manner, it is possible to increase the chances of catching issues early and directing resources to work on solving them.

Role of Rigorous Critiquing at Project Start-Up

“…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld

He also defined the “unknown known” as “the things that you think you know that it turns out you did not”.

Most of us will know of a ‘brilliant idea’ that inspired a project, only to find that some way down the road, issues with the practicality of the concept emerged, leading to expensive redevelopment, or in some cases, the cancellation of the project.

Projects coming up against un-foreseen problems at an advanced stage are usually associated with unknown knowns. Often this is because it is politically difficult to tell Management that some company truism is no longer true!

Let’s imagine that in 1912 we have a project to sail the Titanic from Southampton to New York fast enough for it to earn the Blue Ribband (a trophy for the ship making the fastest eastward sea crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a regular commercial voyage.).

Known knowns – Things you’re aware of and understand.

  • Ships with holes in them sink.
  • The route across the Atlantic takes Titanic into an area where there are icebergs.
  • To claim the Blue Ribband, Titanic must steam at full speed through the icefield.
  • Steaming at maximum speed at night in fog through an area where there are icebergs increases the risk of hitting one.
  • If the Titanic does not get the Blue Ribband on its maiden voyage then the captain’s job is on the line. (For the captain, this is a known known)
  • The Titanic has a clever system of sealed bulkheads that means it can remain afloat even if it has a hole that traverses 4 of the bulkheads.
  • The Titanic is unsinkable.

Known unknowns – Things you’re aware of, don’t know precisely, but understand enough to get the information in a timely way. 

  • Exactly where the icebergs are – Titanic could have stopped during the night and then at daybreak, proceeded at a speed where they could have avoided any icebergs in their path.

Unknown unknowns – things you don’t know you don’t know.

  • How long a hole in the ship will be made if Titanic scrapes along an iceberg.

Unknown knowns – the things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

  • It is impossible under any circumstances to make a hole in the Titanic that traverses 5 bulkheads and thus leads to it sinking.
  • It doesn’t matter if the Titanic hits an iceberg. It is unsinkable

We all know where this particular list of knowns and unknowns led! 

Conclusion – Use engineering principles to identify unknown knowns early

OK so the example is not a science-based project, but it demonstrates succinctly how unknown knowns can lead to problems with project implementation. In an increasingly competitive environment the ability to identify, understand and quantify potential issues early in a project so they can be addressed up-front in a timely way has never been more important. It drives strategic planning and better resource allocation (It’s a known known that you can never be completely sure that you have identified all the potential pitfalls in a scheme – there may always be unknown unknowns). For science-based innovation projects, it can be helpful to use a tick-sheet of engineering principles at project start-up to ferret out potential problems so resources can be allocated to overcome them.


Written by Stephen Bingham


To get free access to our interesting schedule of publications about high performing life science organisations, join our Community here.