Is your organisation like the Titanic?

Posted on December 17, 2015

In a recent leadership forum for South Western Sydney Local Health District, keynote speaker Geraint Martin summarised the outcomes of the inquiry into the Titanic disaster of 1912 as an example of the obstacles to successful organisational change.

Martin, who has led profound organisational change within UK health services and is now guiding a New Zealand health service through a fundamental reform, explained that for cost-cutting and efficiency reasons:

  • the crew of the Titanic had not been supplied with binoculars
  • the propeller design was not fit for purpose
  • the ship’s rivets were not strong enough to survive a big impact.

As a result, the captain was unaware of the icebergs, did not have the capability to avoid them when detected and the ship wasn’t strong enough to survive the collision.

Too often, organisations behave just like the Titanic. They continue with business as usual, blind to the hazards ahead without the flexibility to change direction or the resilience to withstand the inevitable buffeting. Good strategic planning asks some fundamental questions that draw on these lessons:

  • can we see the icebergs ahead or are we blind to them, unwittingly?
  • are we nimble enough to change direction quickly?
  • are we resilient enough to withstand the inevitable challenges and setbacks?

What are your icebergs?

Every organisation has its icebergs, whether it’s the disruptive impact of the internet, changes in government funding models, forced mergers or the move towards shared government entities rather than individual agencies. You can’t just wish away your icebergs: what is happening in your environment will have a fundamental impact on your organisation and has the potential to ‘sink your ship’. Knowing what they are and the impact they will have is the first critical step to managing organisational change.

How nimble are your propellers?

When the iceberg does appear, how flexible is your organisation in responding to these changes in your business environment? There is an important distinction between being reactive and flexible—your organisation should still have clarity around its direction, but have systems and processes in place to make adjustments to this direction when required. Many organisations are too rigid in their job descriptions and ability to move resources around the business, which impedes their ability to avoid the iceberg and still maintain its strategic direction. Challenge standard practices and consider how you can design business structures and working arrangements so that all hands are on deck when the iceberg hits.

Will an iceberg sink your ship?

It’s important to make sure your organisation is resilient enough to withstand a battering, but it goes well beyond financial strength. Your leadership team should have the passion and commitment to make the hard decisions and ensure everyone stays on board during times of change, while maintaining a strong course over the long term. Understanding what the icebergs are and implementing flexible systems and processes to avoid them will make your organisation more resilient and help you withstand the hit. Again, it’s important to focus on being responsive and flexible rather than totally reactive.

Nexus has the tools and techniques to help you move beyond ‘business as usual’ and take a creative approach to looking at the wider environment and what that means for your organisation. Contact us to find out more.