“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near one.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
The above quote from “The Hobbit” is about planning ahead and the importance of identifying possible risks as a significant part of any proposed project. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge of 1940, aka “Galloping Gertie,” is a case in point. In seeking to build a lighter, less expensive bridge, a few “dragons” were unaccounted for, and the dangers were significantly underestimated.
On November 7, 1940, at about 11 a.m., the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses in a high wind. The bridge spanned the Tacoma Narrows, a deep, narrow section of Puget Sound that separates Tacoma from Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula. The bridge collapses four months and seven days after it is dedicated. It had severely oscillated even as it was being built: Workers on the bridge sucked lemons to combat seasickness and dubbed the bridge “Galloping Gertie.”
An original design for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the work of bridge engineer, Clark Eldridge, cost an estimated $11 million; the Public Works Administration informs Washington State Highway Director Lacey V. Murrow they would only agree to a less expensive bridge.
Enter Leon Salomon Moisseiff, a renowned suspension bridge engineer who believes suspension bridges could be built much lighter. He modifies the original design by removing the truss work, which stabilizes the deck, and the bridge supports would be steel girders measuring just eight feet high. In the end, this modified design would cost an estimated $8 million to construct, so, Moisseiff is granted the loan.
Tacoma reporter Leonard Coatsworth (who was on the bridge) says, “Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car… I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb… I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers… My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb… Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time… Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.”
Priscilla Long writes, “The cause of the failure was solid girders, which took the wind and acted like sails (girders with perforations would have let the wind pass through). Also, the bridge was not stiff enough or heavy enough to withstand the wind of the Tacoma Narrows.” (1)
The Importance of Planning Ahead
“Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.” – Richard Cushing
Sometimes we, as leaders, under pressure, can set initiatives neglecting the proper, thorough planning that accounts for the possible risks along the way. The motivating “get it done” mantra pushing us along with both eyes on the deadline can fail to account for “the dragons” when making our calculations.
Carefully thinking through the process and all it entails acts as a scripted playbook, like the predetermined course of action successful sports coaches draw up before game time. Developing a simple step-by-step planning process assures you a higher than average probability of success; it helps you to be mentally in the game before it begins.
In “planning ahead for changes in his organization,” John C. Maxwell writes. “I developed a strategy that I have used repeatedly in my leadership. I wrote it as an acrostic so that I would always be able to remember it:
Predetermine Your Course of Action
Lay Out Your Goals
Adjust Your Priorities
Notify Key Personnel
Allow Time for Acceptance
Head into Action
Always Point to Your Successes
Daily Review Your Progress
That became my blueprint as I prepared to navigate this change for my organization. I had a strong sense of what our course of action needed to be.” (2)
“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” – Pablo Picasso
(1) Excerpts taken from theessay written by historian Priscilla Long https://bit.ly/31xRO0f
(2) 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell (10th-anniversary edition) pg. 43