The Titanic ‘s construction was successful, as far as is known. It was built on time and budget by White Star Lines in 1912 and its sister ship the Olympic successfully completed decades of service including being used as a transport for US troops during the second world war.
However, there are some lessons from the sinking of the Titanic that translate to project management.
Failure To Learn From Prior Mistakes
The Titanic’s captain may have suffered from hubris, Captain E.J. Smith was very well respected after his 43 years of service, but in the 8 months prior to the sinking of the Titanic he had had two collisions, and a near miss by 4 feet even as the Titanic was leaving Southampton on its fateful voyage. It is common practice to demote captains after collisions, but perhaps because of his reputation and years of service, Captain Smith remained in command after not one but two serious collisions in a short period of time. It appears he may have become overconfident or less focused.
Blinded By Science
This hubris also translated to the ship itself, the length of which was comparable to some of the tallest buildings at the time. It was the largest ship ever built at 882 feet long and the largest moving object on Earth. It appeared that many genuinely believed she was unsinkable and the Captain appeared to believe this too, telling a younger officer that if cut in half the ship would remain afloat indefinitely. In fact, there was some degree of truth in this, because if the Titanic had hit the iceberg head on, it may have stayed afloat, but the idea of a scraping side on collision rupturing multiple compartments of the ship was not considered. The belief in the robustness of the ship was combined with faith in the recent development of Marconi radio transmission, which enabled transmission of messages over long distances at times of distress.
Absence Of Sufficient Life Rafts
This sense of safety meant that the Titanic was not equipped with enough life rafts to accommodate all the passengers, because it was believed that the Titanic would always stay afloat, and at the time, the British standard was to measure life rafts by volume rather than the people that could be accommodated. The apparent faith in the ships unsinkability (even apparently held by some who stood on deck during the final hours of the ship) meant that effective risk management options were not in place.
For further reading on the Titanic see Frances Wilson’s excellent recent book from which most of the facts in this post are drawn, and for more on disasters see, Inviting Disaster which analyzes why disasters occur in detail.