Getting to the Root Cause Before the Titanic Hits the Iceberg: Part 1

Eloquently and painstakingly detailed by our program analyst Thomas Watkins, this is a three-part blog series on how to identify, evaluate, and solve the root cause blocking your sales effectiveness. You will take a methodical journey on how one researcher discovered the root cause to a historical tragedy and how you can apply this method in your own journey to understand your sales wins and losses. Enjoy! ∼ Connie Schlosberg, Digital Marketing Specialist

Earlier this week, my wife and I spent an evening watching a fascinating documentary called Titanic’s Final Mystery,” produced by the Smithsonian Channel. The documentary follows a researcher, Tim Maltin, who is trying to determine the root cause of why the Titanic was driven into an iceberg despite having the best crew of the White Star Line and ample warning that there were icebergs in the area.

As I watched it, I couldn’t help but notice many parallels between how Tim Maltin was approaching his study and how we perform Win Loss analysis at Primary Intelligence. I noticed similarities between the builders and crew of both the Titanic and many of our clients.

Identify the Problem in Three Easy Steps

The researcher’s initial methodology for getting to the root cause was straightforward:

  1. Collect all available interviews conducted with the survivors of the tragedy and disregard all third-party sources
  2. Scour the interviews for qualitative trends, noting any similarities or discrepancies in the feedback
  3. Cross-reference those findings against ships’ logs from other ships that were in the area that week such as the Californian.

This methodology almost matches the one we use for analyzing qualitative data for a transformation session (see below). Using this methodology, the single most cited factor he noticed were people commenting on the unusual atmosphere that night (not just the weather, but all aspects of the environment).


Primary Intelligence’s process for diagnosing root causes.

Dive Deeper for Solid Answers

Based on this feedback, he attempted to procure more quantitative and qualitative data, such as:

  • Temperature readings from other ships’ logs near the Titanic that week
  • Maritime records kept by both the US and UK regarding the iceberg season each year
  • Temperature and other measurements of ocean water he took himself within and just outside the Labrador Current, which carries the icebergs each year
  • Interviews with modern fishing and merchant captains in Newfoundland who regularly sail in the Labrador Current

Find Meaningful Patterns

His analysis kept revealing certain highlights:

  • Titanic’s passengers noted a sudden decrease in temperature as they passed into the Labrador Current
  • Titanic’s passengers noted the stars seemed unusually bright and focused that night, yet they twinkled more than usual
  • Titanic’s surviving lookouts said objects appeared both clearer and hazier than usual that night
  • The crew of the Californian also reported odd atmospheric conditions and optical effects
  • A German ship in the area that week noted “air mirrors” in every log entry for nearly a 24-hour period

The best English translation for the German term “air mirrors” is mirage, so Tim Maltin went to the Mojave Desert and worked with a photographer. Together, they brought in a helicopter to do some very low-altitude passes over the desert while they observed the results. The helicopter greatly intensified the mirage. Turning the resulting image upside down made Maltin even surer that he had uncovered the true root cause.


Upon observing the effect of a helicopter flying at minimum altitude over hot desert sands, Tim Maltin next looked for photographs or video depicting mirage effects at sea. Specifically, he wanted the effect of really cold air under warmer air, whereas desert mirages are typically the result of very hot air under cooler air.

Note Every Detail

What he discovered is that mirages can cause intense distortions to objects viewed at a distance. Some of the effects he noted from the photographs and videos included:

  • Ships and islands stretched vertically
  • Ships and islands squashed vertically
  • A raised horizon line

Back in Newfoundland, he discussed the possible impact of optical illusion effects on icebergs with the captain of a ship that takes tourists up to icebergs. The captain replied that he sees such illusions all the time where an iceberg that looks dozens of feet tall turns out to be just a few feet tall when they get close, while icebergs that look small turn out to be 100 feet tall when he finally reaches them.

Maltin also evaluated the effect that a cold-air-under-warmer-air mirage can have on stars. Some of the potential effects are:

  • Stars appear much brighter than usual
  • Stars twinkle faster
  • More stars than usual are visible due to the amplified lighting
  • Stars reflect so brightly off the ocean that a calm sea looks very similar to the sky
  • The horizon has an absence of stars because the light is bent around it

Look Beyond the Horizon

One very important fact on the night of the Titanic disaster was that there was no moon. The ship’s lookouts had only the light of the stars to help them see icebergs. When only stars are available, lookouts must resort to looking for the silhouette of an iceberg against a background of stars. In normal atmospheric conditions, a lookout can spot an iceberg from several miles away in this manner, giving ships plenty of time to change course.

But in this case, the Titanic’s lookouts were looking at what was called a “soft horizon,” meaning that no line between the sky and the sea could be discerned. There was both an absence of stars above the horizon and an absence of the reflection of stars below the horizon, while the entire rest of the sky was filled with stars whose light was magnified by the mirage, and the ocean also reflected that magnified light.

Feedback Inc hits the TitanicIn addition, objects had an interesting effect on the air at these cold temperatures. Several passengers noticed a faint halo around the lights on the ship. Passengers escaping the sinking Titanic talked about a translucent haze around the ship’s stern as it rose into the air. The haze—most likely condensation forming from the temperature difference between objects and the frigid air—formed a mushroom cloud shape above the ship. This was further evidence of temperature bands in the air that would cause a mirage.

Before the Titanic sank, the lookouts noted a thin, translucent haze ahead of them that appeared to be fog. This haze was probably coming from the iceberg. However, because the iceberg was short enough to fit between the star-lit sky and the reflection of stars on the ocean, there were no stars behind it, and the haze prevented light from reflecting off of it. Thus, the iceberg only became visible when the Titanic got close enough that the peak of the iceberg exceeded the raised horizon and blocked some of the stars. By that point, the Titanic was 30 seconds away from colliding with it.

So now we have our root cause: an iceberg that was essentially cloaked by optical illusions—a massive obstacle rendered invisible by the environment in which the ship was operating.

Research with your team of experts to uncover the root causes.

Investigate Your Wins and Losses and Dig For Root Causes

Maltin applied win loss analysis techniques to uncover the reason why the Titanic hit the iceberg.

Here’s what Win Loss analysis can help you uncover:

  • Your star product keeps raking in profits, but the product is already being superseded by newer technology that has taken competitors years to develop.
  • You are trying to deploy new solutions to meet the needs of a changing economy, but are using a legacy business model that is not compatible with the way that new solution must be delivered.
  • Your performance metrics are intensely focused on efficiency, and by all metrics, you are vastly efficient at what you do. However, your customers are finding that the solutions are not very effective at meeting their needs.
  • You have an excellent track record of defining customers’ needs, and over time have neglected proper market research. You put out a product that completely misses the mark on customers’ needs.
  • You’re a small company focused on survival and growth and is stretched too thin to notice changes in the regulatory environment and relevant accounting practices. You’re then hit with an audit and out of compliance.

Can you think of any more examples? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. There are still a few more loose ends in this story to tie up, so stay tuned for part two.


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Thomas Watkins
Program Analyst at Primary Intelligence
Thomas is responsible for identifying what drives buyer decisions and ultimately for delivering business outcomes for his clients. Thomas has a Master of Public Administration, with a focus on analysis.
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