With all the media attention focused on the centennial of the tragic loss of the Titanic, it was inevitable that an innovation practitioner would look to the story of that ill-fated ship as a source of lessons learned for our industry. Indeed, Mark Bonchek does precisely that in an excellent recent article in the Harvard Business Review Conversations Blog. Bonchek states that the First Officer of the Titanic reacted to the sighting of an iceberg by reversing the engines, which reduced his ability to maneuver the ship away from the obstacle. As Bonchek notes, “[i]f the captain had maintained the ship’s speed or even accelerated, he might have avoided hitting the iceberg altogether.”
In thinking about large ships and innovation, however, I decided to look to a more modern example. As I flipped through television channels a few weeks ago, I grew tired of seeing what appeared to be dozens of shows examining every angle of the Titanic story. Instead, I happened upon a documentary about the largest cruise ship in the world today, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Oasis of the Seas. Normally one would think that the innovation-related aspects of the Oasis of the Seas would be a laundry list of technological marvels on the ship (the first living park at sea with thousands of plants, two surf simulators, a bar that can be raised or lowered across three different decks). My analysis, though, focuses on something very interesting about what the ship had to go through during its delivery from the shipyard to its home port in Florida.
By way of background, the Oasis of the Seas is one of the new class of mega-cruise ships and set the record for the largest cruise ship in the world, carrying 6,000 passengers. The ship is 1,181 feet long and sits 236 feet above the waterline. The ship was built at the STX Europe shipyard in Turku, Finland, and a quick look at the area on Google Maps reveals a challenge for this ship in its trip to the open seas. The Great Belt Fixed Link bridge spans the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen across a body of water known as the Great Belt, which separates the Baltic Sea from the open waters of the North Sea. The Great Belt Bridge has the world’s third longest main span (1 mile) and a clearance of 213 feet. Some quick math reveals that a 236 foot tall ship will not fit under a 213 foot bridge.
The ship’s designers anticipated clearance issues for the largest cruise ship in the world and designed retractable funnels for the highest point of the ship. The captain of the ship also planned to pass the bridge at a lower tidal level and to fill his ship’s ballast tanks to allow it to sit lower in the water. On a Discovery Channel documentary on the ship, there is a scene where the captain is approaching the bridge from a distance as he explains the calculations about bridge clearance, ship height, and the retractable funnels. He is clearly nervous, with hundreds of people on board and helicopters buzzing about, as he pilots a $1.4 billion ship towards a $3.8 billion dollar bridge.
This is the point where the ship’s story gets interesting. As the captain approached the bridge, he did something that seemed counter-intuitive those of us who are not proficient in marine engineering and hydrodynamics–he sped up. He set the ship’s speed at 20 knots (23 mph) and took advantage of the “squat effect,” in which a ship traveling in a shallow channel will be pulled even deeper into the water at higher speeds. This phenomenon occurs when the water that normally flows around the ship is obstructed by the ship’s proximity to the seabed, resulting in a lower pressure area beneath the ship. The squat effect pulled the ship another foot lower in the water, which is no mean feat for a ship weighing 225,282 gross tons. The Oasis of the Seas approached the bridge at a relatively high speed with no way to stop or turn back. For the captain of the ship, years and years of work and detailed calculations came down to the moment where the ship had to pass under the Great Belt Bridge.
Most readers probably can guess what happened next for the Oasis of the Seas. It passed under the bridge, though with less than 2 feet to spare. The squat effect provided an extra foot of clearance, so the margin for error was extremely slight. The sigh of relief from the captain was probably audible from miles away.
This is the point where innovation practitioners can empathize with the captain, as weoften find ourselves leading innovation efforts that are the result of tremendous investments of time and money based on intuition and predictions of how innovations will perform once they are executed in the real world. Return on Investment models, data analytics on consumer preference, focus groups, and numerous other methods often accompany our forays into the innovation space, but there is always a moment of truth where all our pre-work must meet the test of reality. At this point, the question that I would raise is whether innovators should consider the lesson of the squat effect. When facing a big challenge with an innovation project, our natural inclination is to slow down, particularly those who work in large organizations or corporations. After all, it never hurts to triple or quadruple check our calculations, thus the aphorism “measure twice, cut once.”
As innovators, we should think about cases where increasing our speed can give us more margin for error than would be the case if we slowed down and inched our way towards an objective. In the case of a new product innovation targeted to the ever-changing set of consumer wants and needs, speed could be the difference between an innovation that reaches a consumer at the right time and is successful versus one that appears but the market has already moved on to a new product. Bonchek advises the business manager to avoid applying the brakes upon encountering a threat, as “the best reaction might be to step on the gas.” Likewise, the mantra of the innovator should be that uttered by US Navy Admiral David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_Oasis_of_the_Seas, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Belt_Fixed_Link, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squat_effect , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Farragut
Mark Bonchek, “Business Lessons from the Titanic (in 3D),” Harvard Business Review Conversations Blog, April 20, 2012.
The sister ship to the Oasis of the Seas, the Allure of the Seas, passed under the Great Belt Bridge on her departure to the North Sea.
image credit: discovery & prodexcon
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.