Can too much agreement sink a ship?
On a calm August day in 1628, just a bit breezy, the Swedish warship Vasa slipped out of Stockholm harbour on its celebration launch. The crowd of invited dignitaries had a close up view when the ship keeled from side to side, just once, and sank.
The Swedish navy was no joke. It was a formidable force, but this time, their triumphant flagship lasted just a few minutes before descending to a watery grave. Why?
The enquiry raised the usual catalogue of defensiveness, blame, cover-ups and half-truths. In the end, it petered out, with nobody taking the blame. They could stand the embarrassment no more.
An ex-king of Sweden had gone to Poland and was causing trouble. The current king. Gustavus II Adolphus, wanted a top class warship to defeat him. It was high-budget, high-prestige, and Gustavus wanted it absolutely right.
Vasa was designed as ships usually were at the time – the shipbuilder made it up as he went along. That was generally fine, as long as the specification stayed the same, but the king kept having ideas. He wanted it bigger. He wanted more guns. He wanted all the guns to be big. He wanted an extra gun deck. There were now too many guns for one deck, and it was rumoured that a Danish ship had been built with two. The designer fell ill, and died, so somebody else had to take over. There were finance hold-ups, then it was rush, rush, rush. Meanwhile, the decorative features went on apace, and the end product was a mass of colourful, ornate carvings, all completed on time.
They did think about the extra weight of all the new guns. They tested for safety by getting 30 sailors to run up and down the deck. The ship went over hard sideways, so they stopped the test. As the king was away, they didn’t want to halt progress, so the launch went ahead. The ship went down, and about 50 people died.
The king was a strong leader. Apart from being a king, he was seen as intelligent, gifted in oratory and fierce in battle. It was not easy to disagree with such a man, even when he was absent waging war much of the time. Strong leadership is often the first stage of a phenomenon called groupthink, where the team agrees too much. It seems that the Vasa team was suffering from groupthink.
Consensus is good when it comes from open discussion. In groupthink, it becomes compulsory, and dissent is rapidly squashed. Disapproval can be a powerful deterrent. The shipbuilder did have misgivings about enlarging the ship when he’d already cut the keel, but he cobbled a new one together in four pieces. Usually, they made these decisions before felling the tree. They didn’t add bits on later.
Ship designers were expert engineers of the time, although they did little in the way of drawing plans. They went on their own experience and their judgement of what would work, and on the whole, they were right. In this case, the designer certainly had some doubts, but gave way. His actions were seen as those of an expert, even when he was acting against his own advice. This is a feature of groupthink – the resident opinion is seen as correct, and doubts are waved aside.
People were expecting glory from this project. Delaying it was to deny its value, and so they put pressure on to push things through. In groupthink, they frown on people who metaphorically rock the boat, and in this case, their decisions literally rocked the boat to extinction.
Groupthink is often revealed when disaster strikes. People who hear about it say things like “I could have told them that,” and they probably could. Almost anybody not in the project could have told them that a ship that keels over when the crew runs across the deck will not last long in the open sea. But those involved were locked in groupthink. They did not think it important enough to revise the plan.
Groupthink doesn’t often end in loss of life, but it frequently leads to ill thought decisions. If your team agrees too much; if there is too much harmony, there could be trouble ahead.