Rule 7 Lesson: Avoiding Perils of Organizational Noise and Fog

On July 25, 1956, the Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish freighter Stockholm while approaching the coast of Nantucket, bound for New York.

Despite both vessels having radar systems, still somewhat in their infancy, the top-heavy Andrea Doria just didn’t see it coming and it immediately listed to one side, making a majority of its lifeboats unusable. Amazingly, through some lessons learned 40 years earlier with the Titanic, just 46 lives were lost and 1,660 were rescued. The evacuated liner sank 11 hours later.

The Stockholm, despite a damaged bow, made it to New York harbor. Why did one sink and not the other? Luck? Design? Lots of theories abound, but there is a management lesson there – one of organizational behavior, one of change, one of the dynamics of colliding cultures, whether they be in the form of generational change inside the company, or forces (such as merger, acquisition) from outside the company.

Four decades earlier, the Titanic didn’t see the iceberg until it was too late. The Andrea Doria didn’t see the Stockholm until it felt the Stockholm, and the Stockholm didn’t know how to read the signals that it was going down the wrong charted course – it had radar, it just didn’t know what it was saying.

From USCG RULE 7: “Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.” 

Has anyone ever worked in a company with great systems, software, controls, yet the compass is spinning, the captain is nowhere in sight and the crew is fighting with each other?

There is a management lesson here about risks to the organization, or in this case, the vessel, because of the sometimes self-serving or confused behavior of senior managers or management teams. One of the common situations when senior executives are being moved around, or there is the threat of new or further management changes on the horizon, is that rational self-interested behavior can take over, or worse, apathy.

Often when orchestrating organizational realignment, it’s frightening to look back and imagine what could have happened had the “captain” trusted his or her senior officers (or, vice versa) to chart and sail course independent of his or her engagement.

In the case of Andrea Doria and Stockholm, both ships’ navigation efforts told them they were plotting the right course, yet there was a collision and the hull of the Stockholm rammed into the thin skin side of the Andrea Doria.

The one constant managers have is incomplete information. It takes collaborative effort to routinely and regularly check course and make minor adjustments.

Remember Rule 7

Ironically, despite all of the available sailing, navigation and positioning technology, the United States Coast Guard still enforces something called “Rule 7” of which there are variations for inland, international and other waters – but generally, it is as follows:

(a) Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.

(b) Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.

(c) Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.

(d) In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account:

(i) such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change;

(ii) such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.

These are great guidelines for managing an organization through times of noise, fog, uncertainly of location or bearing or confusion and misdirection among the senior officers on deck.

The captain or an organization can never make assumptions – and he or she needs to be able to trust his or her instincts and to validate the crew’s position and regularly plot their progress. Relying on instruments and what others say, and trying to hear through noise and see through fog, are part of the daily life of the vessel’s commander, but it is that captain’s duty to always seek and ascertain unbiased, objective information to avoid any unnecessary collisions with unforeseen stationary or moving objects (or situations).

In short, the captain must be prepared and ready for anything, as storms and noise and fog arrive quickly and in various forms. The captain must also be prepared for things he or she cannot see below the surface, such as rocky ledge or sandbar.

In management, just as in navigation, there are risks and rewards, there are knowns and unknowns, but there is always incomplete information and the ever-present dangers of assumptions and uncertainty.

Never underestimate the value of the mix of hard work, attentiveness, diligence and objective and accurate data in charting organizational course.