Getting to the Root Cause Before the Titanic Hits the Iceberg: Part 3

This is part 3 of our three-part blog series on how to identify, evaluate, and solve the root cause blocking your sales effectiveness.

To recap, our previous posts covered:

  1. The root cause of the Titanic’s collision with the iceberg: optical illusions which hid the iceberg from view.
  2. The manner in which the researcher, Tim Maltin, identified this root cause: qualitative and quantitative data analysis of first-person eyewitness accounts and the original ship’s log books.

You may recall that there was another ship nearby: the Californian. The Californian was well aware of the icebergs, and in fact, had radioed warnings of icebergs to other ships throughout the evening. Before Titanic’s collision, Californian only narrowly avoided a disaster of its own in a huge ice field just north of Titanic’s crash site. As a result of the same optical illusions Titanic was experiencing, it had seen the ice field just barely in time. Captain Lord of Californian ordered his crew not to travel further until morning.

Use Your Illusion

Radio technology was new, and so the Californian had only one trained radio operator on board. That operator sent out a signal to nearby ships warning of the ice field the Californian had encountered, but he began his message with an informal greeting. In present-day terms, it would be like receiving an email saying, “Here is some data you might want to consider,” instead of “Urgent! Attention: Key data on our position vs. Competitor X.”

At that exact moment, the Titanic’s radio operator was listening to distant signals from the Canadian coast, and the sudden intrusion of a very loud, informal-sounding signal from Californian was highly unwelcome. Missing the most important part of the message, the Titanic radio operator told the Californian’s operator to “shut up.” As you might expect, this made Californian’s operator less inclined to monitor Titanic’s progress thereafter. He shut off the radio, went off duty, and retired for the night.

While You Were Sleeping

The Californian’s crew later observed the approach of an unidentified ship which, based on the evidence, must have been the Titanic. However, a mirage effect disguised the Titanic’s true appearance, causing Titanic to look like a small cargo ship to Californian’s captain. The deck officers on Californian attempted to signal the ship they saw using a bright lamp that flashed Morse code.

The Californian’s crew then observed the ship they had spotted make a hard turn and stop. It eventually fired rockets, but it fired them in a pattern that meant “navigation error, stand by,” instead of “come to aid.” The crew tried the Morse lamp again without success. Meanwhile, Titanic’s crew could also see a ship that it tried unsuccessfully to reach with its Morse lamp.

Type in Morse code to get to the root causeThe mirage effect that night would cause light to shimmer in a way that could easily scramble a Morse lamp signal. It is probable that each crew saw the other ship’s Morse lamp and could not recognize it. With Californian surrounded by an ice field and without a clear indication that Titanic was in distress, its captain made the decision to remain in place, while Titanic drifted away due to the current.

Putting The  Root Cause Pieces Together

If we analyze the captains of Titanic and Californian on that night, both made decisions that seem very questionable to an informed outsider with all the evidence. However, when we put ourselves in the shoes of that captain with only the evidence available to that captain, things become less clear.

  • Both captains were confused by optical illusions that masked icebergs and made Morse lamp impossible to read.
  • The Californian’s captain was very cautious after his near collision and reluctant to move. He could not clearly see Titanic’s collision, and Titanic’s rocket signals were not clearly an SOS.
  • The Titanic’s captain had reason to believe that Titanic could survive a major collision, since he had captained a similar ship—the Olympic—that survived a major collision.
  • By the time Titanic’s captain knew for sure that Titanic would sink, the only other ship he could see was drifting out of sight, and he knew that the lifeboats would accommodate fewer than half the people aboard. At that point, any course of action seemed futile.

Californian could perhaps have reached Titanic in time to rescue the remaining passengers, as it is believed there was a clear passage between the two ships. However, evidence shows that the Titanic’s radio operator sent out incorrect coordinates in his SOS message, and the mirage effects may have caused the ships to look closer to each other than they really were. Had Californian’s radio operator been awake to receive the SOS, Californian still might not have reached Titanic in time.

It seems we lost the opportunityWith both ship captains and crews fooled by illusions and by holes in the data at hand, neither one was in a position to make the best choices possible. It is easy to say that leadership needs to make better choices, but the fact is that leaders must rely on the information available to them. With inaccurate or incomplete information, even the best leaders can fail.

To avoid thefallacies that plagued the ship captains, I cannot overstate the importance of receiving valid and accurate feedback about your buyers and competitors. Such information should not be gathered solely through internal means—that information is subjective to inaccuracies, or illusions. However buyers may give biased responses to you for various reasons. A best practice is to use an objective third party partner to get unbiased data and minimize the illusion, giving you what you need to act.


Thomas Watkins on sabemailThomas Watkins on sablinkedin
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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