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Vasa’s historic project management lesson Building a ship is a huge project today as it was hundreds of years ago. Yet, as project managers, do we learn from the past or stumble into the same pitfalls over again? ‑ Learning from the ‘Vasa’ project disaster, the grandest battleship of its time sank just minutes into her maiden voyage!
Sweden’s Great Power period
In the 17th century, Sweden was on the top of its game. It emerged as a leading power in Europe during the so-called ‘Great Power period’ (1561–1721) characterized by a constant state of war with its neighbors in the Baltic Sea.
When King Gustavus Adolphus (1611-1632) inherited the Swedish throne, he was out to change naval warfare entirely earning him the later title “father of modern warfare” for revolutionizing naval tactics.
In those days, boarding was common practice, i.e. pulling side by side to an enemy ship, enter it, and fight man-to-man to take over the ship. The King found this tactics outdated. It was time for a new era of large battleships, which demand the enemy’s respect, serving as firing platforms for mighty cannons to fight from a distance, and project Sweden’s power even beyond the Baltic Sea. The firepower of its guns would now decides the outcome of the battle at sea and bring victory. Thus, the ambitious Gustavus Adolphus needed a new class of heavy ‘ships-of-the-line’ to exchange devastating salvos from afar.
Setting sails to a new era!
After severe setbacks in the war with Poland, Sweden’s naval superiority in the Baltic Sea was in jeopardy. In 1625, the King commissioned the Royal War Ship ‘Vasa’ as the first and grandest of four ships of the new era. The Vasa was planned with an overall length of 69m (226ft), 1,210 tons displacement, 10 sails, a total of dozens of cannons and the capacity to hold 450 men (150 sailors and 300 soldiers). It was a bold statement: the Vasa was the most powerful battleship of its time, no expenses spared!
Spoiler alert, the unthinkable happened: Three years later, on 10 August 1628, the Vasa sank just minutes and a mile into her maiden voyage with over 100 men aboard; over 50 sailors perished.
Putting on the Project Manager’s hat
From a project management perspective, building the Vasa was the most expensive project ever undertaken by Sweden and it was a total loss. – What had gone wrong?
Humankind throughout history has undertaken large and innovative construction projects many times and with success. It is safe to assume that the people in charge applied the best project management practices known at the time to increase the likelihood of project success, i.e. delivering a product to the sponsor’s satisfaction.
Naturally, it is easy for us standing on the ‘hill of the presence’ and look back down into the ‘valley of the past’. Today we have access to sophisticated and detailed procedures for project management, which are generic and serve as a guide to run projects of any nature and size successfully. For example, the Project Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge, PMI’s PMBOK is such a general and proven framework that everyone can learn and follow.
Starting a project
In my experience, it is important for a project manager to have strong sponsorship commitment and ability to control the project scope.
The king himself was principal stakeholder and sole sponsor of the projects to construct the Vasa and the other three ships to follow with all power and wealth concentrated in the sovereign’s hands. What a great prerequisite to get the project moving! On the downside, however, this powerful sponsor can also take more influence on the project than is good for the end product, the Vasa.
Therefore, managing the scope is crucial. It includes clarifying the project scope upfront and controlling possible changes to the scope throughout the project. Controlling scope does not mean that no changes are possible after the project starts – this would be unrealistic. It means that foreseeable risks and impact on resources, time, quality and other factors need to be evaluated and made transparent to the stakeholders for their approval. It means avoiding ‘small’ changes finding their way into the scope without evaluating risks and adjusting for impact. This communication is a major aspect of the project manager’s job.
As a rule, changes late in the project increase cost dramatically, so avoiding ‘scope creep’, i.e. uncontrolled changes late in the game, is a crucial.
In January 1625, King Gustavus Adolphus commissioned four new ships over the next years in two sizes, the longest keel length measuring 41m (135ft) and shorter one still an impressive 33m (108ft) keel. He entrusted Admiral Fleming to oversee this program, as the King himself chose to tend personally to the ongoing wars abroad instead. Hybertsson, a competent and experienced shipbuilder was put in charge to manage the Vasa project as the first ship to be built.
The wood for Vasa had already been cut to size when a devastating storm destroyed 10 Swedish ships. Facing his losses and struggling to fill the gap, the King changed his order: He now wanted the smaller ships first to replenish his fleet faster.
This way the Vasa started out to as a smaller ship with a 33m/108ft keel in 1625 but -as we will see- became as a scaled-up vessel again with a long 41m/135ft keel over the course of the project. This was just the first of the King’s frequent and profound design changes during the construction phase and after the keel for the Vasa had been laid. Like the foundation for a house, the keel is a most critical part for a ship’s design; it sets and limits many following structural and other technical characteristics.
Building up to the tipping point
Time pressure from the King and a constant stream of significant alterations continued. Hybertsson did not seem to find time to get the plans for the ship adjusted and re-drawn every time anymore. With the ship’s dimension increasing again over time and adding innovative specifications, Hybertsson left his known terrain and ventured into the unknown of ship-building. Faltering under time pressure, the layout for a smaller ship was simply scaled up to become a larger frame to house the newly specifications. Changes hardly found their way into documentation anymore.
The changes affected not only the length but also the width of the ship. It had to be widened to accommodate more superstructure, another innovation that shifted the ship’s critical center of gravity higher making it less stable at sea. Given the original shorter keel layout, there was simply not enough space to add ballast to give the ship the stability it needed to counterbalance its increasingly heavy top.
Bringing in heavy artillery
The situation got worse. Sweden struggled to win the upper hand in the ongoing war when news arrived that rivaling Denmark planned a large battleship too. The King swiftly ordered adding a second gun deck to triple the armament from initially 24 to now 64 heavy guns plus some smaller guns! The center of gravity rose even higher with the second gun deck, the widened hull, and the added weight of the heavy cannons.
Only 48 of these guns were on board during the maiden voyage ‑ because the gun manufacturer was running behind schedule as were the shipbuilders.
Next, the King ordered hundreds of artisan outfitting sculpted in heavy oak wood and painted lavishly to impress with splendor. It made making the Vasa not only the most impressive and expensive ship of its time but also added more to its instability at sea.
In summary, frequent change orders were issued under time pressure. Changes remained undocumented and without deeper consideration of their consequences. The project schedule and milestones slipped, while the Vasa became larger and heavier than her layout could safely support.
From bad to worse
By now, the project was in serious peril. ‑ But wait, it gets even worse!
One year before completion the shipbuilder Hybertsson fell ill and died. His assistants, Jacobsson and Ibrandsson, would share responsibility to continue but only after a period of confusion on who was in charge and direction the workforce of now 400 men. The project management was already poor but suffered even more in the vacuum of accountability and the continued absence of reliable plans and documentation.
Stability is critical for the seaworthiness of every ship. Unfortunately, knowledge and underpinning for reliable calculations for stiffness and stability were not yet developed. The only way to find out if a ship would heel over and sink or not was to try it out in as so-called ‘lurch’ test: 30 men ran from one side of the ship to the other back and forth to make it rock. It took only three runs for the Vasa to rock so violently that the ship risked tipping over – the test was discontinued.
Now, due diligence was obviously applied as good as possible by conducting the stability test as an experiment with observable outcomes. – Having a previous post in mind, “How to apply metrics?” this experimentation deserves a heartfelt “Bravo!”
The circumstances of the test, however, also tell the story of lacking communication and coordination within the project team and with stakeholders: While Admiral Fleming and Hannson, the future Captain of the Vasa, were present during the test, while the shipbuilders, Jacobsson and Ibrandsson, were not present. They were not even informed about the outcome! It raises the question if the builders even knew the test was conducted in the first place. Yet, the Admiral insisted the ballast was too heavy, as it pulled down the hull with the gun-ports coming dangerously close to the water line.
Modern calculations confirmed that the ballast was only half of what was needed to stabilize the ship, but proper ballast would also have drawn the lower gun-ports under water.
The impatient King did not come in person to inspect the Vasa project progress (or its issues) but simply demanded challenging results from afar: He set the deadline for the Vasa launch to late July 1628 and threatened subjects who would not comply with his royal demand ever increasing the pressure.
Bitter end of a prestige project
The day of the maiden voyage came in mid-August 1628, several weeks after the King’s final deadline had run out. The outcomes were horrifying for the King’s prestige project: Just a mile or so into her voyage a light gust of wind caught the sails. The Vasa heeled over on its side and water poured in through the gun-ports. The mighty ship sank on the spot in Stockholm’s harbor ‑ a total and tragic loss of ship and lives.
From a project manager’s perspective, just about every error imaginable was made over the course of this doomed project: ‘Scope creep’ from frequent change requests, no process to address the consequences of the changes, a distant yet overpowering sponsor, intense time pressure on the project schedule, poor communication all around, a lack of documentation, unclear responsibilities, ignorance of risk and impact of unfamiliar innovations, disregarding (or covering up?) results from the failing stability test, and so forth. The absence of project documentation leaves many details in the dark to date.
Following our human nature, when ever a project fails the search for a scapegoat begins: Captain Hannson was jailed immediately. However, the following investigation concluded that nobody was to blame! No reasons were specified for the sinking of Vasa. Perhaps even more interesting, the question was never raised during the investigation whyVasa became top-heavy. It reflects a negligence to learn from past failures for future success, so the fate of ships and crews were left to trial-and-error.
Scope, change and communication
Coming back to the earlier discussion on what is most important to control as a project manager, major issues in the Vasa project arose specifically from:
Stakeholder (dis)engagement – The stakeholder’s perception from afar is prone to dis-align with the situation the project manager faces on the ground. This gets amplified easily by poor communication between sponsor/stakeholders and the project manager, whose primary task is actually communication over anything else – quite contrary to common belief.
The King gave orders from afar without visiting the construction to connect with key players and make more informed decisions; apparently, also his communication with the Admiral, the King’s representative ‘on the ground’, was not effective either.
Admittedly, in those days consequences for failure could be severe and go far beyond what we can imagine today in a corporate environment. The pressure felt by the Vasa‘s project manager and reluctance to speak up may be hard to fathom today.
‘Scope creep’ – The project plan for Vasa was established with a schedule and a projected timeline by when the product would be available; in this case, when the Vasa would swim and be ready for battle. Typically, early estimates found on or favor best-case scenarios. They are outdated only a few weeks into a project of the Vasa size. They need to get updated periodically taking account of changes requested and unforeseen obstacles encountered. An specific finishing date should not be offered at the beginning of the project without careful communication about the associated risks, so not to nurture unrealistic expectations by sponsor and stakeholders. It needs to be closely managed, adjusted and communicated transparently by the project manager.
The King demanded significant changes throughout the project’s duration that translated into time and money lost. Bear in mind that the King does not know every task that goes into each change and the risks it induces. It demonstrates even more the importance of a controlled change management process that reflects the impact of each change transparent and realistically. This gives the sponsor or stakeholders a chance to reconsider whether the change should then be approved or not. As an iron rule, you cannot have it all: cheap, fast and with high-quality, so it is important to choose accordingly.
Unrealistic expectations – The common belief prevailed for several hundred years that a bigger ship, tall and impressive, carrying more guns, etc. would also be ‘more indestructible’. – Too much ambition and the deceiving belief of ‘too big to fail’ sank also another world’s largest ship marking a superlative disaster in 1912: the Titanic.
Nowadays, a project management office (PMO) can help to define project management standards and processes to achieve consistency across projects, which also helps to educate the sponsor on risks and help them setting expectations realistically.
After the Vasa disaster
Today, scientific methods as well as refined and formalized project management methodologies exist, such as the PMI’s PMBOK, which prepare project managers to deliver the project results reliably and with satisfying scope, time, and quality. However, there is no silver bullet for project success since we are all humans prone to make mistakes often based on assumptions, beliefs, and unhealthy ambition. Even the best method is only as good as the degree to which it is applied and enforced!
In the end, large and heavy double-deck gunships were built and launched successfully. They ruled the seas for a long time, among them the USS Constitution. This ship was launched in 1797 with firepower comparable to the Vasa but nearly twice the displacement of 2,200 tons. This well-measured ballast made the ship safe, seaworthy and successful. With reconstruction completed in 1995, the USS Constitution is on display in Boston today as the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.
The Vasa today
The Vasa lay in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbor for centuries. Early attempts to salvage it remained fruitless. The wreck was located in 1956 and finally raised in 1961, a full 333 years after Vasa sank.
Usually, organisms such as worms eat away the wood of ships over time but not so the Vasa. It remained in the same condition it sank due to the inhospitable waters off Stockholm. The adverse environment preserved the Vasa so well that it was even able to float with its gun-ports sealed and after water and mud were pumped out of the hull!
The Vasa is on now display in Stockholm and housed in a dedicated museum specially built for it. Around 30 million people visited the Vasa as one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions – a late glory for the grandest battleship that never saw a battle.