Belfast Telegraph

What the Titanic can teach us about keeping a business afloat

By Professor Stephen Brown

Thirty-two years ago, when Lew Grade's hugely expensive movie Raise The Titanic hit a box office iceberg and sank without trace, he famously quipped that "it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic".

Even allowing for inflation however, Lew's $40m (£25m) budget is nothing compared to the money being poured into the steamship's centenary.

The 100th anniversary is the centre of a spending spree that the late, great Lew Grade could only dream about. Viewed dispassionately, this celebration of an awful maritime catastrophe is somewhat unseemly, not to say downright distasteful. The loss of 1500-plus lives in the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic is hardly the travel industry's finest hour, let alone Irish shipbuilding's. Yet, as the ever-rising tide of memorabilia, collectibles and tawdry Titanic souvenirs sadly attests, capitalism has never let a terrible tragedy stand in the way of money-making.

Regardless of many people's reservations about the selling of the sinking, one thing cannot be denied: the Titanic is a magnificent metaphor.

In an attempt to save you a few shekels, here's the steerage version of top Titanic tips. Ideal for icebreaker sessions, they can be summarised under the four Fs of failure, fortitude, fortune and fables.

Whatever way you look at it, Titanic failed spectacularly. The same is true of business. The brute reality of business life is that most companies collapse, most start-ups stop, most mergers misfire and most innovations implode.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that failure is the price of progress. Without attempts to innovate, without a burning desire to change the world, humankind would still be trying to figure out fire. Titanic may have failed spectacularly, but its sinking was the making of it. Titanic was a tragedy for the unfortunates on board, and traumatic for those who survived, but its failure transformed an industry, a culture, a century.

Whatever else it is, Titanic is a testament to humankind's insatiable ambition, our irrepressible pursuit of the impossible dream.

This commendable desire to make the impossible possible is the essence of the second Titanic f-word: fortitude. The fortitude of the passengers and crew; the fortitude of the rescuers; the fortitude of those who died so that others might live; the fortitude of the musicians who played on as the dark waters rose around them, are an inspiration to those who toil in the boiler rooms.

Fortitude, in fact, is a trait that many great businesspeople share. The ability to keep on going and going and going, in the face of incessant denigration, is a hallmark of the entrepreneurial spirit.

But without a lucky break, it can soon come to naught. Fortune is a notoriously capricious mistress. The innumerable incidents that, if only they'd gone the other way, may have averted the Titanic calamity, are a reminder that luck looms large in life and business alike. Chance is not only a fine thing in everyday life but it is a very fine thing in business. Many successful innovations, companies, brands and so on were flukes, accidents, windfalls, strokes of outrageous good fortune.

Even the Titanic tragedy, let's not forget, was a stroke of fortune for some. The Marconi wireless system benefited from its starring role in the sinking, as did David Sarnoff, the radio operative who parlayed his bit part into a career at RCA.

The New York Times established its reputation as the newspaper of record thanks to its circumspect reporting of the Titanic catastrophe. Salvage teams, auctioneers and museums haven't done badly.

Storytellers too have reaped rich rewards from the sinking. Books, novels, poems, plays, movies and computer games have poured out of the foundering vessel as fast as the Atlantic poured in.

Indeed, if ever an event illustrated humankind's fondness for fables - our need to create morality tales that make sense of our painfully perilous existence - the innumerable Titanic narratives are proof positive that stories make the world go round.

They are all there in the Titanic's capacious hold. They are ever ready to be reassembled into new narratives that tell an old, old, endlessly fascinating story.

This is the most important lesson that businesspeople can take from the long lost Titanic.

You must tell a tale to make the sale. Unless you have a compelling tale to tell, an effective narrative wraparound, you are fated to founder on the ice floes of failure. Unlike the great ship, great stories are unsinkable. They are Ireland's greatest natural resource and the least successfully exploited. Far from being dead in the water, our innovation nation is getting ready to set sail. Full steam ahead, shipmates.

Professor Stephen Brown, University of Ulster Business School

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