Monday, July 22, 2013

Infrastructure, blame, and the Vasa

My blog post on Saturday about a street renovation project in my community appears to have stimulated a lot of response in town, including on this local blog.  I understand that the actual disposition of the project remains in doubt.  Once that is resolved, there will be the inevitable and unfortunate exercise about whom to blame.

My regular readers know how I feel about blame.  It is usually unproductive and often serves to mask underlying systemic problems or leadership failures in an organization.  In addition, the wrong person--often the one with the least power in an organzation--is likely to be unfairly blamed.

Counter examples are powerful.  I often tell the story of Tom Botts from Royal Dutch Shell, who commented about deaths on one of his company's oil rigs:

It was a defining moment for us when we, as senior leaders, were finally able to identify our own decisions and our own part in the system (however well intended) that contributed to the fatalities. That gave license to others deeper in the organisation to go through the same reflection and find their own part in the system, even though they weren’t directly involved in the incident.

But the body politic sometimes insists on assigning blame when there has been an embarrassing failure.  The story of the Swedish ship Vasa provides an allegory.  Wikipedia explains:

Until the early 17th century, the Swedish navy was composed primarily of smaller single-decker ships with relatively light guns; these ships were cheaper than larger ships and were well-suited for escort and patrol. However, a fleet of large ships was considered a bold statement and an effective way to impose respect on enemies and allies alike, possibly even beyond the Baltic. For the ambitious [king] Gustavus Adolphus, a navy with a core of powerful capital ships was an opportunity that could not be missed. Vasa was the first in a series of five ships intended to be among the heaviest and most splendid of their time. 

During the design and construction of the ship, the king demanded many changes in its size and other characteristics.  The result was that it became unstable.  On its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628:

Vasa sank in full view of a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly ordinary Stockholmers who had come to see the great ship set sail. The crowd included foreign ambassadors, in effect spies of Gustavus Adolphus' allies and enemies, who also witnessed the catastrophe.

The king was notified by letter of Vasa's fate on 27 August. "Imprudence and negligence" must have been the cause, he wrote angrily in his reply, demanding in no uncertain terms that the guilty parties be punished.

In what seems comical today but at the time was deadly serious, this sequence followed:

Captain Söfring Hansson, who survived the disaster, was immediately imprisoned awaiting trial. Under initial interrogation, he swore that the guns had been properly secured and that the crew was sober. Surviving crew members were questioned one by one about the handling of the ship at the time of the disaster. However, no one was prepared to take the blame. Crewmen and contractors formed two camps; each tried to blame the other, and everyone swore he had done his duty without fault. Later, the focus was turned on the ship builders. "Why did you build the ship so narrow, so badly and without enough bottom that it capsized?" the shipwright Jacobsson was asked by the investigators. He fell back on the classic strategy of civil servants; he had simply followed orders. Jacobsson stated that he built the ship as directed by [his predecessor and mentor] Henrik Hybertsson (long since dead and buried), who in turn had followed the instructions of the king.

In the end, no guilty party could be found.  After all, who could blame the king?

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