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Lessons from the Titanic: Why Adapting to Change is Essential for Success

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

"The Titanic hit the iceberg not because they could not see it coming but because they could not change direction."
— Dean Devlin

David Blair served as the second officer on one of the most significant historical ships the world has ever seen, the RMS Titanic. Unfortunately, he didn't get to enjoy this posting for long. He was abruptly replaced by a more skilled officer who was used to operating on giant passenger liners. He departed the ship without remembering he still had something crucial for the ship's safety in his pocket, the lock code for the binoculars' storage locker in the crow's nest. He probably shrugged kindly when he realized this, asking, "What's the worst that can happen?". Later, government inquiries and first-hand testimonies would conclude that he was partly responsible for 1,522 individuals' deaths. Fred Fleet, a crow's nest lookout, stated that he “would have seen the iceberg sooner if they had the binoculars.”


Although the Titanic's sinking remains the worst maritime disaster in history, I bet you didn't know it also directly contributed to the rise in popularity of wireless radio. The Radio Act of 1912 was a direct result of this incident. To ensure they didn't miss distress signals, radio communications on ships must run continuously and have backup power sources. This prompted the use of wireless radios on ships. More radios were placed on board so that passengers could listen to them whenever they wanted once the staff realized how much the passengers loved them. This contributed to the globalization of the wireless radio business and its subsequent expansion.


The moral of this story is that no matter the capacity of your role in your daily interactions, your decisions, behaviors, actions, or inactions have an impact far beyond what you may see at that moment.




 
"One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change. Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment."
— Robert E. Quinn

What do you do when faced with the uncharted waters of change? Change can bring a lot of fear, stress, and questions. Questions like: What changes are coming my way? How do I navigate this new change? What will happen if I don't make the necessary changes?


It's a natural instinct to avoid change. We like routines. And rituals. We don't like surprises. And, frankly, most of us don't like the unknown. But change is an inherent part of life, and avoiding it almost never results in anything good.


It's often a period of adjustment and uncertainty. If you realize that it can't be controlled and that there's no way to avoid change, then you can accept it and efficiently navigate it. Being able to effectively navigate change is essential when leading a team.


Perhaps you are in a role where you have to support change for your team or are responsible for creating change in an organization. If the answer is yes, then you are in the right place. In order to effectively guide a team through the change process, you must be able to take in your surroundings and environment while communicating effectively with your team and those around you.




 

I once saw a TV show that explained why cruise ships sink. It isn't simply one thing that causes them to go to the bottom. A series of seemingly minor events can add up very quickly and lead to disaster. This is the same for businesses and their interactions with employees.


Adaptability is one of the most critical skills at work. It's fairly easy to adapt when things are going well, but what about when you find yourself at the helm of an impending shipwreck? What happens then? If a captain were faced with this situation, should they try to steer their way out of a collision with an iceberg or would it be wiser to switch courses and instead hit a giant iceberg head-on? What makes this idea challenging to execute is the experience one has to have to make the right call.


"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."
— John F. Kennedy



 

I've recently read about the iceberg management style, from a book titled Economies that Mimic Life by Jay Bragdon. In a nutshell, your iceberg management style is how you deal with change. It is comprised of 5 factors; Beliefs, Vision & Values, Structures, Behaviors, and Results. If we look at each one of them more closely, I think you will start to understand that this model gives us some great insights into our capabilities in dealing with people and emotions.

From the moment you wake up in the morning, your life is changing, instantaneously and continuously. However, at times change can feel jarring and even disruptive. That's because we all have what I call "visionary blinders" on. We don't see change coming until it hits us — a magnified version of an iceberg from the Titanic movie. Instead of waiting for that to occur, we need to become sensitive to the symptoms (icebergs) and address them as early as possible before we find ourselves on the ship when it sinks.



Beliefs: Beliefs are like icebergs -- they're often hidden from our view. Because of this, hindsight lets us know what did and didn't work but it's harder to see what caused a failure before we fail. I know because my company was about to go down in flames (and it took some pretty drastic changes for us to change course).

Vision & Values: I've been involved with several projects as a supervisor and leader, and seeing the issues we face when it comes to navigating change while avoiding icebergs has motivated me to write this post. I was inspired by reading, "Customers don't want change - they want the value that change creates" in my daily Harvard Business Review email. When I think about this, it rings true. Think about change. You feel excited to go cloth shopping, buy a new vehicle, purchasing a new phone, and beginning a new diet or workout routine. All of these moments have something in common, you desire to change. My experiences have lead me to believe that if we take a look at how personal vision impacts us as leaders, and how organizational vision and values can support us, two things will happen: (1) We will arrive much faster at our destination; and (2) We will enjoy the trip.


Structures: Most likely you've been in a situation where change was the order of the day. For most of us, change is a difficult process that often brings mixed emotions and reactions. In fact, recent research suggests that 66% of us hate change. And this occurs for good reasons as change can bring about many different and unpredictable consequences. Whenever we have to endure change it not only affects us emotionally but can also create significant changes in our fundamental working relationships with other people. In particular, organizational cultures are delicate creatures that need to be navigated carefully and methodically following a clear and consistent set of principles. The structure is a facet of change that leaders need to keep in mind. Drastically altering someone's perceived or real structure will have adverse reactions, if the "why" is not described.



Behaviors & Results: When the rest of these sections are attended to with careful planning and execution the results are positive. For example, if a leader approaches this model with open communication, honesty, and constantly relaying the why for the change; the outcome is positive. On the other hand. If the approach taken is a negative behavior then the result has more of an opportunity to become less desirable.



 

Remember that there are multiple moving parts within an organization and within the personal relationships within them. To inspire real growth and lasting change it is important to understand the behavioral reactions that everyone has. Learning these responses and their whys will help you navigate the waters of change where there are potential icebergs littering your progress waiting for the opportunity to shipwreck your efforts. Just as the crew of the Titanic, a successful or failed journey depends on everyone knowing their positions and being equipped with everything they need to be successful. One forgotten tool or key can be the difference maker.


 

Until next time! Climb Together!

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