Typically we think of project failure as a project that is massively over budget or behind schedule. James Chiles takes a different perspective in his book Inviting Disaster.
The books looks at events that resulted in real human tragedy and explores why they occurred. Of course, this makes for bleak reading, if you are the sort of person who gets nervous during flights, then this definitely is not the book for you. However, if you find the engineering challenges involved in designing safe systems of interest then this book is relevant and readable. The book doesn’t just look at projects, but disasters more broadly. A few lessons emerge from the author’s insights:
- Disasters are generally the result of multiple factors, rather than a single factor. For example, at Bhopal the problems could have been mitigated if just one of four things had functioned as planned.
- Weather is often a primary factor in causing disasters, whether freak waves, rain or winds. It is weather that pushes many systems to their limits.
- Systems can be made safer by isolating elements so that a single disaster cannot spread. For example, at a chemical facility, buildings should be separate, so that an explosion in a single building will not destroy the entire site.
- Problems with instruments can be as dangerous as real problems. The author gives an example of a plane that crash due to a piece of tape over its air intake that was crucial for measuring airspeed, though the plane functioned correctly, because the instruments were wrong, the pilots were unable to fly.
For project managers it is a good reminder of the importance of a safety culture, and that as much as aggressive deadlines are important, following them blindly causes obvious problems.