Full Steam Ahead

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Full Speed Ahead!

The last order the captain of the Titanic gave before he retired for the night. 

You've got a sturdy ship underfoot. In fact, THE most robust ship that modern shipbuilding has ever produced. 

The estimated distance from Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland to NYC is 2825 miles.  At a decent cruising speed, you can make the journey in 137 hours.

It's common practice to run ships at full steam at night.

It is a clear night with stars in the sky.  Calm water. 

Nothing out of the ordinary here. 

Oh yea….let her RUN!

And then….

Well, you know how this story ends.


How often have you told your team:

Let's Do It.  Let's Go!  No Stopping Us Now!  We've Got This!

All great ways to stir up and motivate your team.  And most times, appropriate.

There are times, however, full speed ahead drives your right into a looming disaster.


  1. My first project out of town. Over 200 people and I was an analyst, just two years into my consulting career.  I was tasked with developing the training modules and procedures for shipping goods from client warehouses to their customers. 

I woke up every day to detailed, mind-numbing work.

For 7 months, we endured long hours.  60 and 70 work weeks.  Constant grind.

And then, the entire project approached a seemingly impossible deadline.  The client was worried.  Actually unhappy.

And then we got it.  Our 'Full Steam Ahead' order.

Not only was all overtime approved, our client partner announced … the competition.  The person who logged the MOST overtime hours in the next month wins a trip to Aruba.  Their were second and third place outrageous prizes too.  Outstanding!  A chance to make lots of extra cash!

With two daughters, I imagined what this extra cash could buy for our growing family. 

Everyone cranked up their engines. 

Overtime hours were logged.  No leaderboard.  Everyone needed to feel they were in the hunt!  Just 30 days of 'Full Steam Ahead'!

Let's GO!

People fueled their engines with coffee, soda and potato chips.  They ate all three meals at their desks.  Walking through the cubicles, midnight looked like Noon.

The progress in the first two weeks was record-breaking.  We beat all our interim milestones.

Week 3:  Warning signs.  Icebergs.

Eyes glazed over.  Overtime hours stayed steady and yet progress slowed.

Week 4:  Impact

By the end of the month, teams missed all the critical deadlines which I imagine generated a most uncomfortable conversation between our lead partner and the client.

Our "Full Steam Ahead" order turned us into 200+ zombies.  I can't remember who won the trip to Aruba.  Honestly, I don't think anybody cared.  I wonder how many people requested to get off the project.

I promised myself:  Never Again.


25 years later, another huge project.  This time we're merging two multi-billion dollar organizations.  Both companies operate in over 100 countries worldwide.  The most complicated project I've ever been on.

Over 250 consultants on this project. 

I co-lead the team integrating all the sales and marketing functions across the world.  We have a small agile team of 4.  Other functional teams average about 20.  Work requirements pile up.  Deadlines get tighter.  MANAGING the work takes as much time as DOING the work.

About month 6, progress slows.  Deadlines across the project are made and missed.  We get the order.  'Full Steam Ahead.' 

I grit my teeth and go to my co-lead client to talk about overtime, additional staffing and more budget.

A seasoned veteran of 30 years in the industry, he comes back with the most astonishing response. 

"Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast."

Sometimes, it's better to step look and look at a lot of moving parts from a distance rather than trying to see all the moving parts one at a time.

For 3 full days, we planned our strategy.  We identified 2-3 strategic decisions we must get EXACTLY right.  The other 100+ decisions can either be delayed or forgotten altogether.  Yep, we'll miss things, but the main risks are solved with strategic and simple elegance. 

When all the other teams of 20+ people prepared their mountains of slides, we spent hours preparing our one slide. 

The day of the big presentation arrives.  All the high-ranking executives from both sides of these multi-billion dollar companies are in the room.  All team leads are present.  Probably 100 people in the auditorium.

I'm really nervous.  This will either work or will fail miserably.  Everything's on the line.

Team after team presents complicated slides with incomprehensible plans.  Eyes glaze over. 

Our turn.

My client walks up to the podium.  He presents our one slide in a couple minutes and asks if there are any questions.

You could see the frustration in the eyes of many of executives.  This seemed too simple and yet the strategy was airtight.  A couple executives asked a few questions to test for holes, but the elegant solution held.

Before you steam into the night with a 'Full Steam Ahead' order, it's wise to step back and think strategically.  Chart a course that misses the icebergs and keeps your team intact.

Don't let speed and quantity goals overshadow safety and quality goals.

Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.


"Full Speed Ahead" is one of ten risk assessment components of our Titanic Diagnostic.  Check out the other nine on our Titanic Diagnostic App in the Apple Store! 



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