Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Strategic Planning Analogy #141: Vasa Matter
August 10, 1628 was the date of the maiden voyage of the new Swedish military ship the Vasa. The Vasa was a huge and glorious-looking warship, extremely ornate with lots of cannons. The cost of the ship was equal to over 5% of Sweden’s entire annual GDP, and it looked as spectacular as its price tag.
Large crowds were on hand to watch the Vasa leave port on its maiden voyage. Shortly after leaving shore, the Vasa hit a small gust of wind. Soon thereafter, it tipped to its port side and sank. Less than a mile from where it started, the Vasa was completely submerged and lost under water, along with the lives of 30 to 50 people. Four years of work lost in a handful of minutes.
What went wrong? As it turns out, just about every type of project management error took place in the prior four years.
Let’s start at the top with King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Here’s some of the things he did which had a negative impact on the project to build Vasa:
1) He kept changing his mind about the strategic direction he wanted to take the Swedish military fleet. Sometimes he asked for large ships, sometimes small ships, sometimes medium ships. Then he would change his priorities for the order in which he wanted them built. This created a planning mayhem for the ship builders.
2) Because he kept losing ships so quickly in the war effort against Poland, King Adolphus kept having to increase the number of new ships he wanted built as well as increasing the speed in which he wanted them built. When speed is of primary importance, other problems can slip through the cracks.
3) Throughout construction of the ships, King Adolphus kept meddling with the process through endless change orders. He kept changing how many and what type of cannons would be on the ship. He kept changing the size of the ships. The problem was that at a certain point in the process, these changes create massive problems. For example, specific trees are chosen and cut a particular way based on the type of ship being built. If you change the design after the trees are cut, it is hard to make the logs fit the new design. In addition, by adding more and heavier cannons to the design, King Adolphus was making the ship more top-heavy at a point when it was too late for the boat design to be adjusted to compensate for the added weight.
4) Throughout most of the process of building the Vasa, King Adolphus was out of the country fighting the war. He was out of touch with what was happening with the shipbuilders. So you had the worst of both worlds—an absentee manager who did not know what was going on yet still wanted to constantly meddle with what was going on.
At the shipbuilding level, there were also a number of events going on that hurt the project.
1) Just prior to the order for the Vasa, the shipbuilding organization had new owners without any real continuity with past orders. In addition, the shipbuilders were not strong financially, which created added stress.
2) The types of ships King Adolphus was ordering were a new type of ship the shipbuilders had never built before. The shipbuilder Henrik Hybertson had nothing to go on based on his prior experience. Because they did not have sophisticated mathematical tools at that time, Hybertson just made up the design in his head based on his best guess.
3) There were not a lot of sophisticated drawings for what the ship was to look like. It was pretty much all in the head of Henrik Hybertson. Unfortunately, late in 1625—one year into the construction process—Hybertson became very ill. He eventually died in the spring of 1627. During his illness he was not able to attend to details as he normally would. When his assistant, Henrik Jacobson, took over after Hybertson’s death, he was not sure what to do, because Hybertson had done very little communication with him during the illness. Jacobson just tried to finish it as much to what he thought Hybertson had in his mind.
4) When the initial stability tests were performed, the ship failed the test. It seemed highly prone to toppling over. In fact the test was stopped midway for fear that the boat would sink if the test were completed. Yet nothing was done as a result of the test. The pressure from the king to get the job completed soon was bearing down on them. Therefore, it was assumed that the master ship designer knew what he was doing, so the problems with the test were not reported. Worse yet, the test was done before all of the top-heavy ornamentation was placed on the ship, which would make it even more top-heavy.
5) Ship stability depended on having the proper weight at the bottom of the ship. On the maiden voyage, the Vasa was leaving port to go pick up the full crew and supplies. Crew and supply weight was an integral part of the design calculation. Without them, the ship would be even more unstable. They should have brought the crew and supplies to the ship, rather than the ship to the crew and supplies.
King Gustavus Adolphus was known as a great war strategist. His war strategies had taken Sweden from being an inconsequential country to a powerhouse in the affairs of Europe. Unfortunately, great strategies, when poorly executed, can result in disasters like the Vasa.
This is true in today’s business world as well. If your project management skills are as messed up as they were for Sweden in the 17th century, your strategy will also sink before you know it. You won’t need competition to destroy your strategy. Your own inability to execute a plan will sink you in your own harbor.
The principle here is that strategic planning should not stop at the design stage. Once a strategy is designed, it must be executed. Poor execution can make a strategy worthless. Therefore, design of the execution is as important as design of the strategy. Design and management of the process needs to be tightly integrated into the strategic planning process.
The Vasa project did not integrate this all together. It failed at three levels:
1) Direction – The strategic direction for what ships should be built kept changing.
2) Adaption – The ship building process was not designed well to adapt to change, be that changes to design once lumber was cut, changes in shipbuilding leadership, changes to number of cannons, and so on.
3) Communication – The communication between the king and the shipbuilders was poor and the communication amongst those building the ship was poor, and the communication of bad news was poor.
To have a successful outcome, strategic planning needs to have a say in how these levels are executed.
1) Direction – Strategic Planning needs to ensure that the strategic direction does not get lost at the point of execution. The keepers of the strategy need to continue to point the way to the “True North,” so that the fury of activity does not inadvertently veer off course. Do not assume that workers will keep on the path on their own. Proactively work to ensure the overall direction is not lost in the daily details of execution.
2) Adaption – During the course of execution, things will change. The environment will change, we will learn more, people will leave, and so on. Therefore, strategies will need to be modified and adapted to the change. If strategic planning is not a part of the adapting, there is no control to ensure that the changes are strategically sound. Poor adapting can ruin the entire strategic foundation that was developed earlier. Therefore, changes should be treated as strategically as the original project design.
3) Communication – It is impossible for everyone in the organization to execute a plan to make a strategy come to life if nobody at the execution level knows what the strategy is. A strong two-way dialogue is needed between the keepers of the strategy and the executers of the strategy so that the desired outcome occurs. The executers of the strategy are like the forward intelligence unit who can report back how things are going (like if the ship doesn’t pass the stability test). The keepers of the strategy provide direction to make sure the executers understand the strategic context of their actions and what is expected. The two-way communication also helps when adaptation is needed, so that everyone is on the same page.
The strategic planning process should not end when the original strategic design is completed. It must continue into the execution phase. The big annual strategic planning meeting is not an ending point. It is a starting point. The planners and the executors need to partner throughout the entire process—from ideation to implementation. Otherwise, the project will tend to veer off course and sink your chances for success.
General George S. Patton is quoted as saying, "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." In other words, great execution matters a lot in one’s success. It can make a good plan great. The sooner you can integrate the two, the better off you are.