Project Titanic – Knowing When to Jump Ship Before it Sinks!

Even though your organization may seem “unsinkable,” are you making sure that unseen issues will not capsize your projects before they even get off the ground.




No one could foresee the tragic sinking of the Titanic – so, why did this once mighty ocean liner sink?

  • It was Captain Smith’s fault: the ship’s speed was too fast for the ice berg conditions and he refused to slow down
  • It was the Ship Builder’s fault: the ship’s rivets were made of sub-standard iron and the impact caused the Titanic to come apart
  • It was Bruce Ismay’s fault: Managing Director of the White Star Line was obsessed with crossing the Atlantic in six days so he pressured Captain Smith not to slow down
  • It was Thomas Andrew’s fault: the watertight compartments didn’t reach as high as they should have because the shipping company wanted more room for first class passengers
  • It was Captain Lord’s fault: the Californian was 19 miles from the disaster and when they saw the flares, even they had warned the Titanic of ice bergs in the area, he ignored the flares and did not travel to the Titanic to help

Maybe not one of these “faults” caused the ship’s sinking alone, but together the disaster was inevitable. Is this the way it is with projects at your organization? Studies have shown that 61% of all projects fail, and 52% of all projects finish more than 187% over budget. (Gartner and Standish Group research). So it may not be one thing, but it may be a number of things that “sink” your project’s success

Our research on this topic shows that the following areas are the most common reasons for project failure. Use them as a checklist for determining if you want to risk your time (and possibly your career’s reputation) on the project team.

  • Projects are not aligned with the strategy of the business (or are just a bad idea)
  • Poor input/requirements from the User community
  • Poorly developed, or non-existent, written project scope
  • Deadlines are scheduled arbitrarily or are overly optimistic (usually created by the executive team without understanding the project work required to have a successful outcome)
  • Lack of standard project methodology used by project teams
  • Lack of Senior Management support or interest
  • Lack of, or poorly managed, accountability for project performance

All of these “failures” are correctible, and, if reversed, would improve your project success considerably. The following are some tips on how to change the direction of a sinking project “ship.”

  • Aligned projects: Using your credit union’s strategic scorecard, write down what score you will be improving and make sure you describe how the project will impact that score. Most projects will fall into five categories:
    • revenue growth,
    • expense control,
    • strategic alignment,
    • member experience, and
    • compliance.

Use this link to help score the alignment of your projects.

  • User Input: Users who best know the business process should express their requirements clearly – which should be written down by the project team. Users should provide on-going feedback to the project team to ensure that the outcomes reflect user requirements. The project team needs to ask the right questions and NOT make assumptions on what they think the users mean. Otherwise there can be resentment, even hostility, on the part of the users to embrace the new project solution.
  • Project Scope: Project scope is the overall view of what a system (project) will deliver. When scope is vague or non-existent, progress against a moving target is next to impossible. When what needs to be worked on is in the team leader’s head, no one knows what that is until the next weekly meeting. This causes “scope creep” and much wasted time by everyone. Scope should be tracked and constantly used as the touch point for all of that project’s work. Click here for more help on writing scope for your project.
  • Project Deadlines: Lack of a project business case, which would include the scope of a project, leaves the senior management team vulnerable to making bad deadline decisions. There needs to be honest evaluation of resources needed and work involved in completing the scope of the project. And senior management should listen to that honest evaluation – not set their own arbitrary or optimistic dates because they think the project team is “lying” about how much time it will take. It is also important to factor in at least 20% more time to allow for problems. Project rule of thumb, the more difficult the implementation, the longer time frame will be required to achieve project success. Click here for a scorecard for evaluating how easy or difficult successful implementation of the project outcome will be.
  • Standard Project Methodology: All things mentioned so far are elements of any standard project methodology. Gartner estimates that by using moderate project management standard processes, there will be a 30% improvement in productivity. Project methodology typically has two scalable elements:

    1. Project Strategy – filtering/assigning projects to enterprise or department, reviewing the project business case, prioritizing projects and resources, and creating the project charter/scope.

    2. Project Implementation – assigning project phases, developing project tasks, accountability and schedule, recording project meetings and ensuring project communication and feedback loops, training staff on project methodology, and completing a post-project review to increase organizational learning and wisdom.

  • Senior Management Support: Typically, a project has a sponsor who is on the senior management team. Communication and feedback play an important role between project leader and sponsor, which reinforces senior management support. This support includes senior management congratulating the project team on work going well, removing barriers to help the project move along, and holding project members accountable for their performance to achieve successful results of the project. This communication and feedback requires organization discipline from the senior management team as well as the project team.
  • Accountability for Project Performance: You can’t have accountability unless you have clarity. The project requirements and scope go a long way in defining the outcomes required. It is then an easy path to create the clear tasks for team members to accomplish. Regular reporting ensures communication loops between project leader and team members as well as with the project sponsor – again reinforcing commitment from senior managers and desire to perform on the part of the team memb

In closing, even though your organization may seem as solid as the Titanic appeared prior to its maiden voyage, a myriad of unseen issues can sink your projects before they even get off the ground – adversely affecting your credit union not only in the short term but in the long term. Unlike the Titanic, however, there are steps you can take to avoid many project pitfalls, leading to their success and a definite increase in your credit union’s value toward your members and potential members.

For more information on “Project Titanic” subject matter, please contact Jim Cardwell or Karla Norwood at Cardwell, 800-395-1410. Or visit our Connections Online website:




Sept. 24, 2007


  • Very clear and concise, with specific action steps. This can be applied to any project with great results.
    Liz Aperauch