What Can We Learn from the OceanGate Tragedy? The recent OceanGate tragedy where five people were killed in an apparent implosion was, in hindsight, a disaster waiting to happen; and from a project management perspective, there are many things that could have been done better to prevent this from happening. We can learn from this tragedy and it’s a perfect example of the need to develop an integrated project management approach that blends traditional plan-driven project management and Agile in the right proportions to fit the situation.
I want to summarize some of the areas that I think are most important from a project management perspective.
Regulation versus Innovation
A very serious mistake was that the Titan submersible was not inspected or certified in any way by any regulatory agency. If a regulatory agency were involved, the submersible probably would not have been certified for operation at the depths that it was used for; or at a minimum, it would have been subjected to a lot more testing before it was approved for use.
“The founder and CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, Stockton Rush complained that the US submarine industry’s “obscenely safe” regulations had been holding back his “innovations” years before his submersible went missing — with experts alleging that he skirted regulations by operating in international waters.”https://nypost.com/2023/06/21/oceangate-ceo-stockton-rush-once-complained-of-industrys-obscenely-safe-regulations/#
Any company that provides a product or service to consumers that has risk and safety issues associated with it should be regulated to protect the safety of the consumers of that product or service. Instead of viewing regulation as a hindrance, the right approach is to respect that regulation provides value-added to improve the safety of the design to consumers and work collaboratively with the regulators to produce an inherently safe product or service. It’s unfortunate that some companies see regulation as an unnecessary hindrance that slows their innovation rather than a value-added contribution to improve the safety of their product.
Respect for People
An integral and important aspect of any project management approach is respect for people. That is especially true for an Agile approach involving a lot of uncertainty. Respecting all the members of the team is important to build consensus on a sound and well-designed solution approach. Everyone’s opinion should be valued and respected and if anyone’s input is ignored, it can jeopardize the final outcome. That was another significant issue in the case of the OceanGate tragedy:
“The director of marine operations at OceanGate, the company whose submersible went missing Sunday on an expedition to the Titanic in the North Atlantic, was fired after raising concerns about its first-of-a-kind carbon fiber hull and other systems before its maiden voyage, according to a filing in a 2018 lawsuit first reported by Insider and New Republic…David Lochridge was terminated in January 2018 after presenting a scathing quality control report on the vessel to OceanGate’s senior management, including founder and CEO Stockton Rush, who is on board the missing vessel.”https://techcrunch.com/2023/06/20/a-whistleblower-raised-safety-concerns-about-oceangates-submersible-in-2018-then-he-was-fired/
In addition, a number of people outside the project tried to warn Stockton Rush, the CEO, about the safety risks that were inherent in the design.
“A submarine expert desperately tried to dissuade his friend, OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, from taking customers in the Titan submersible, warning him against ‘succumbing to pressures of your own creation,’ new emails show”https://www.insider.com/submersible-expert-oceangate-ceo-hull-defect-will-only-get-worse-2023-6
The lesson to be learned from this is that any leader has to put aside his/her ego and listen to important advice from others.
Risk management is something that is often neglected in fast-moving Agile projects. Just like regulatory controls, it is often viewed as a hindrance that inhibits fast-paced, rapid innovation. In the case of the OceanGate tragedy, many risks were largely ignored. Instead of proactively addressing the risks and doing sensible things to mitigate those risks, OceanGate developed a “4-page waiver signed by a would-be Titan passenger listing all the ways they could die in the ‘experimental’ sub”. (https://www.insider.com/read-oceangate-waiver-titan-sub-passengers-lists-numerous-death-risks-2023-7) That effectively just passed on the risks to passengers rather than addressing the risks directly.
“…before boarding submarines from OceanGate, travellers were warned in a contract that ‘it has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, disability, motion trauma, or death’.”https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/oceangate-safety-issues-whistleblowers-b2364880.html
Again, it is not necessary to totally abandon a fast-paced Agile development approach to incorporate some appropriate level of emphasis on risk management.
Overall Lessons Learned
One of the biggest dilemmas we have in project management today is the need to develop a well-integrated project management approach that integrates traditional plan-driven project management in the right proportions to fit the situation:
- Many project managers are used to a “cookbook” project management approach where you force-fit all projects to a well-defined and standardized approach and you might even have checklists and fill-in-the-blanks templates for what to do at each major point in the project. That style of project management is rapidly becoming obsolete. In today’s world, it takes a lot more skill to fit a project management approach to the nature of the project.
- From an Agile perspective, many people in the Agile community are used to a very pure Agile approach and any attempt to integrate some form of traditional project management into that approach is viewed as heresy and anathema.
That kind of thinking is what is called a “false dichotomy”. It leads many people to believe that there is a black-and-white, mutually exclusive choice between “Agile” and “Waterfall” and each of those represents two different extremes of a spectrum with nothing in between. The OceanGate tragedy is a perfect example of that. What was needed in that situation was to develop an approach that is fast-paced and innovative to complete the design of a new submersible in a reasonable amount of time, but at the same time, integrate regulatory compliance, risk management, and a respect for people into the overall approach. That certainly requires some compromises to be made, but it’s not an all-or-nothing choice between two radically different extremes.