New Bottom Line Volume 6.16 – Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Management I Learned 369 Years Ago at the Launch — and Sinking — of the Wasa Ship

July 29, 1997

It’s a remarkable sight. A nearly intact 17th century warship, 69 meters from bowsprit to stern, 52.5 meters from keel to top of mast, housed in the seven story Wasa Museum in Stockholm’s Djurgarden park. A stack of balconies enable one to view the ship from below, above or side, to peer through the gunports at the cramped interior spaces, to inch out on a sample “crow’s nest” set as high off the museum floor as the actual one was above the rolling deck on the Wasa ship. It’s a fascinating museum, complete with examples of clothing, weapons, tools and shipboard life, but there’s also a story behind it, and another behind that. And there’s a management moral to those stories too, so stay with me please.

The ship is a marvel of archeology, dredged up after three centuries at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor in a two decade project of discovery, excavation, dredging, raising and restoration, all carefully documented on film with pride entirely appropriate for Sweden’s equivalent of an Apollo mission.

Commissioned by Sweden’s king during the Thirty Years War, the Wasa was to be a mighty psychological as well as naval weapon in the battles with Poland for Baltic dominance. With its complement of 445 men and 64 guns, the ship was one of the mightiest weapons of its day, its size and extravagant ornamentation a testament to the wealth and power of the king. Except for one thing. It listed to one side, then the other and sank 15 minutes into its maiden voyage from its construction drydock to the royal palace.

The king, who was doing battle in Poland at the time, was not pleased and ordered an inquiry into the cause. The initial hypothesis put the blame on the incompetence of the crew, but that theory was somehow soon dismissed. The designer, who had died before the fateful voyage, somehow survived the inquiry, which closed without conclusive findings. Centuries later, naval engineers concluded that the ship did not carry sufficient ballast to offset structure and armaments.

But didn’t these people know how to engineer stable ships, you might wonder? Well, yes and no. No, because warships of that day were none too stable, Errol Flynn movies notwithstanding. Yes, because nothing quite like this had happened before. But our tale doesn’t end there.

Because the additional factor in this story was an order from the campaigning king saying that he wanted ships with two decks of guns, not just a single deck. The Wasa was already under construction, and no one was sure whether the king meant to design a second deck of guns into the next ship or to add one to this ship. Communications being slow in those days, the doubt was resolved in favor of adding the second deck rather than risk displeasing the king. Unfortunately, there was no room for additional ballast to offset the high riding weight of the additional guns. But the ship had to be built, and the work went on. Murphy’s Law was at work, even back then.

Now these were capable naval architects, not blind to the problem, so some testing seemed called for. Under the watchful eyes of the admiral, sailors massed along one side of the ship, then ran to the other, back and forth, to see if the ship would begin to list. It did. And the admiral called off the test!

What does this have to do with environment? Not much. But it has a lot to do with the process of management, with technical prowess and ample capital overshadowed by communication breakdowns and willful ignorance of the facts. “Don’t bother me with those details; we’ve got a spec to fulfill, a deadline to meet.”

Fortunately we’ve learned a lot about management in the last three and a half centuries. We’re much less likely to ignore facts, employee concerns or experimental results to meet production deadlines or quarterly profit targets… aren’t we? And we certainly aren’t likely to ignore fundamental physics, whether it concerns naval architecture, the low-temperature performance of o-rings in a rocket booster, or the constraints faced by a growing industrial system confronting the laws of thermodynamics in a closed biosphere.

Captain Dilbert, I presume?

(c) 1997 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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