It was just after dawn on 18 March 1967 when Pastrengo Rugiati, the veteran captain of the Torrey Canyon, the largest oil tanker of its era, discovered that the vessel had drifted off course overnight due to strong currents. It was heading straight towards a notorious, partially submerged reef off the coast of Cornwall, England.
The Seven Stones, as this treacherous reef is known, makes up one of the most dangerous shipping lanes anywhere in the world, accounting for more than 200 shipwrecks. In 1707, the British Navy suffered one of its worst disasters on these fearsome rocks as first the flagship HMS Association struck the reef during stormy seas, drowning all 800 men aboard, before it was followed onto the rocks by HMS St George, HMS Phoenix, HMS Eagle, HMS Romney and HMS Firebrand. Did this mean the Torrey Canyon was already doomed?
We all begin 2021 with a renewed optimism, a positive spirit and a desperate hope for the successful return of our industry following the global pandemic last year which crippled air travel, causing damaging knock-on effects to all the sensitive working parts of global travel. However, while we have been busy surveying the damage and focusing on what we can repair to get us back on track as quickly as possible, it is easy to miss the fact that our course has changed.
The new year has brought many exciting new creative briefs to CircleSquare. Our team of strategists, creatives and project managers have been busy unpicking these challenges and exploring how to deliver the most evocative environments, boundless consumer experiences and game-changing omnichannel solutions. However, despite the dramatic new changes facing the industry, a quick glance at client ‘deliverables’ suggests that in many instances we are being asked to remain on the very same course we were on before the pandemic.
People often use the metaphor, “like turning an oil tanker” when they are referring to something which is difficult, or time consuming, to change. You can start to see why when, like Captain Rugiati, you are trying to turn a ship the size of the Chrysler building and you require a full six minutes to turn 90 degrees, by which time you will have simultaneously travelled forwards a staggering 1.5 miles.
However, far from being doomed, the Torrey Canyon was in fact 35 miles away from the rocks when the errant course was discovered. Visibility was good. The sea was calm. It was a state-of-the-art vessel, fitted with the latest radar system. The Captain was a 20-year veteran who had previously served in the Italian Navy and his crew were all experienced campaigners. Turning an oil tanker under these conditions was child’s play. But Captain Rugiati ordered his crew to remain on course.
Today, global travel is at a very similar stage on its journey to that of the Torrey Canyon; we can clearly see changes which have affected our industry and more importantly we have both the time and the talent to adapt for success.
Psychologists have a term they call ‘Plan Continuation Bias’. It is a cognitive bias to continue with an original plan in spite of changing conditions and growing evidence that you should reconsider. It happens more often than you think, and it typically crops up as the pressure to perform increases and when people have something invested, like money, effort or time. In most instances, it causes people to double down on their original plan, making them even less likely to change course and dramatically increasing the chances of failure.
As time reduces and pressure builds, focus shifts from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ and people become detail focused, obsessed with box-checking or perfecting tiny elements which have no impact upon the big picture. Where do you think the expression “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” comes from?
Have you ever blindly followed the GPS in your car, even when it looks like it’s not taking you where you want to go? Have you noticed that the later you are, the more you cling onto the hope that after the next bend or over the next hill, the GPS will have miraculously found a new ‘unknown’ route straight to the door of your destination? Then you know Plan Continuation Bias first-hand.
Because of the vast size of the Torrey Canyon, Rugiati was under time pressure to arrive into port during high water, as failure to do so would mean he would have to wait in the shipping channel until the next high tide, resulting in unwanted delays and additional fees. The crew, having started the fateful journey in Kuwait, had been at sea for a month and they must have felt like they were within touching distance of their goal. And there it is, the investment of time, money and effort multiplied by pressure; the perfect equation for Plan Continuation Bias.
In modern society, people who change their minds are frequently seen as being culturally weak. Politicians are constantly criticised by the press for making “embarrassing U-turns” and having statements they made months earlier thrown back at them as if this volte-face shows they cannot be trusted. The pressure to stick with the plan intensifies.
For global travel the pace is starting to pick up and with it, so too the pressure to deliver. Businesses are demanding results. Quick gains are needed. Individuals are straining to deliver against ever tighter budgets. Years of brand equity in the channel cannot afford to be undermined. Or, if you put it another way, there is the investment of time, money and effort multiplied by pressure and a call for ‘strong’ leadership. Sound familiar?
Inevitably there will be casualties in our industry. However, simply taking a step back right now and reappraising the situation before putting a revised plan in place, is likely to have game-changing implications.
1. Start now
There is nothing to win from delaying and everything to lose. The best day to begin is today.
2. Embrace flexibility
Remember that your goal is what you want to achieve, and your plan is your intended way of achieving that goal. There may be multiple ways to achieve the same goal and as the landscape changes, it might be that a different plan makes it even easier to achieve that goal. So, prepare for change, expect change and understand you plan is likely to require changes in order for you to successfully reach your goal.
3. Amplify the signals
No matter how small and harmless a new piece of information or a shift in the landscape appears, amplify it. Look at it the same way you would a bigger problem, put it under some genuine scrutiny and identify what impact it will have on your plan, tweaking your plan accordingly. It is incredibly easy to miss something when the pressure is on….and remember, hindsight is 2020.
4. Take a moment
Organisations rarely have the luxury of taking their time in a crisis. As the stress and pressure mounts, they try things like improvising or throwing more people at a problem, but this is almost always counterproductive. Stop, draw breath and get your head out of the detail. A few minutes spent looking at the bigger picture now will save countless hours, money and resources later.
5. Dip your toe in the water
In a time of crisis, when you are less sure of the future than ever, be careful not to be lured into putting all your eggs in one basket. With an unknown landscape in front of you, it is much better to try a couple of new things and learn from the results. Essentially, it’s a bit like dipping your toe in the water before you dive in.
6. Ignore U-turn shame
It takes far greater leadership to recognise things have changed and that you must adapt, than to rigidly stick to the original plan, even if that makes you look weak. Leaders who stubbornly stick to the original plan tend to go down with the ship!
7. Question authority
Many people are nervous about questioning the decisions of their superiors and the consequences which may follow, but this is classic PCB behaviour and actually makes you complicit in any failure. Remember, questioning authority is not dissent, it is your job.
8. Be creative
In times of unstable conditions, people are drawn to new and innovative ideas. Now is the perfect time to get creative so hire the best creative minds in the business, don’t rush them as great ideas take time to develop, and be bold. It was brands like Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s who emerged victorious from the crisis of WWII and it was their bold creativity which drew millions of people to them.
When interviewed as part of the marine investigation into the Torrey Canyon shipwreck (which also caused an environmental disaster), Captain Rugiati claimed he had lost a vital 30 seconds just before he hit the rocks and that he could have avoided them if things had simply gone his way.
But if you take a step back to look at the bigger picture, you can see it wasn’t what he did in the last 30 seconds that mattered at all; it was what he didn’t do in the two hours before it.