King Gustavus’ Folly: The Story of the Vasa

Guest post by Jim Anderson

In my life, new product ideas are always showing up. However, whether we’re talking about new products or just new ideas, if too many people get involved in making them “better”, the whole thing can fall apart. Perhaps a story would help me to make my point.

(This is a guest post by Jim Anderson of Blue Elephant Consulting. Click here if you are interested in guest posting.)

My favorite story of what can happen when you let too many other people get involved in designing a solution has to do with a boat. Maybe I should say this more clearly: it has to do with a ship that was created a long time ago in Sweden.

(Picture by Javier Kohen, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The Story Of A Boat And A King

This is a story that starts back in 1626 when the king of Sweden, King Gustavus Adolphus, ordered the building of the Vasa. It took two years for his boat builders to design and create this ship. King Adolphus was keen to have it because at the time he was trying very hard to rule the Baltic Sea. The more boats that you have, the easier it is to accomplish this.

Just to prove to you that things really don’t change, you need to understand that King Adolphus was deeply involved in the design of all of the ships in his naval fleet. Can you say “too much senior management involvement”? Rare is the king who is also an expert boat designer.

Now you need to understand that at this time back in the 1600’s, warships had one deck of cannons on both the left and the right side of the ship. The commission orders for the Vasa ordered that she be created with this design.

Give Me More Cannons!

Now at just about this time, good King Adolphus discovered that his dreaded competitors for control of the Baltic Sea, the Poles, had somehow created ships with two decks of guns on them. Needless to say the King developed a serious case of cannon envy.

Since he was king and could do anything that he wanted, King Adolphus modified the design of the Vasa to now include two decks of guns. To the king’s credit, on paper the Vasa was now the most powerful ship of its day and had a great deal of firepower. However, that’s not all that it had…

As with all great senior management plans, this one had just one little flaw. The designers of the ship realized that there was now a problem and attempted to explain that to the king. What they had discovered was that the ship’s design called for it to have too little ballast in order to support two heavy gun decks. They believed that building the ship that the king had designed would result in a ship that would be unsafe to sail.

Thanks for that input guys. You know how this story goes – it’s good to be king. The king wanted his ship and he wanted it the way that he had designed it. The building of the ship continued.

Physics Wins (This is my favorite part of the story)

In 1628 the ship was done and ready for initial testing. One of the tests that they did was a stability test. In this test, 30 sailors were selected and asked to run back and forth from side-to-side on the ship’s deck. If the ship didn’t tip over and sink then it was basically good to go. During this testing of the Vasa, the ship started to tilt widely and they ended up canceling the test.

You would think that this was the end of the story. But it isn’t.

On August 10th, 1628, the king’s mighty ship the Vasa set sail for the first time. The ship got about a mile away from the dock when a good stiff breeze came along and knocked the ship sideways, she took on too much water, and then she promptly sank.

Of course there was an investigation in order to find out what had gone wrong. Since the king, of course, could not have been the problem, the question was who was to blame. In the end, the sinking was chalked up to an “Act of God” and forgotten.

However, in the 1960’s the Vasa was raised from the sea and was placed in a museum in Stockholm. If you ever get there, make sure that you drop in and see it – a shrine to all of us who’ve ever had to deal with meddling senior management.

Jim Anderson is the founder of Blue Elephant Consulting

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  1. :)
    Here is a similar story

  2. Does anybody remember the other story about King Gustavus? It’s the one where he delegates blog posts to other people, and everyone stops reading the blog.

  3. Oooh! Bob, you’re so mean!

    One guest post. One.

    News anchors have holiday and weekend replacements all the time. Johnny Carson used to have a guest host now and then. Of course, now everyone just reruns a “best of” show. But really, which would you rather have — a Venkat rerun or a “now for something different”?

  4. Sorry, I’ve got to agree with Bob. This guest poster shamelessly exploited a historical anecdote to shill some typical consultant blather. The result was one fairly content-free comment. Let King Gustavus rest in peace.

    I’ve got no beef with guest posts. Venkat deserves some time for other projects. But the glory of this blog is the superior quality of the posts. They are, almost without exception, provocative and intellectually stimulating. The Vasa as metaphor for micro-management fell far short.

  5. Wild, I just read about the Vasa last night while looking up the meaning of “heel” in a sailing context. And today I used it as an example of a different phenomena.

    Not having time to write an essay, this will be short and probably incomplete….

    Ever worked in some huge corporation where every action requires sign-off by dozens of local and remote actors? And even the simplest actions are described in the most tedious, minute steps?
    ( my current contract is at such a place… )

    No-one wants to stick their neck out and take initiative all by themselves, the risk of failure is too high. So the thing to do is create a web of responsibility to distribute the fault as widely as possible, in case of disaster. The prime directive of employees in these large corporations ( the ones that have virtually guaranteed revenue streams, like banking or insurance, ) is not to perform or achieve, rather to CYA and keep a low profile.

    I suppose this is Dilbert 101, but like sea life, there is an amazing variety of forms.

    This relates to the Vasa; the Wiki I was reading detailed how the chief designer was found to not be responsible as he was merely following orders. I guess King Adolphus at least respected the rule of law. And a web of responsibility with plenty of interlocking steps ensures that no-one will lose their jobs.