The story of the Brooklyn Bridge — in the late 19th century the longest and largest suspension bridge ever attempted — is as dramatic as any fiction. As chronicled in David McCullough’s phenomenal The Great Bridge (1972) it has heroes, villains, excitement, setbacks, and ultimately triumph.
Engineers were the heroes, starting with John Roebling, the greatest bridge-builder of his time, who conceived the bridge, served as architect, and organized the effort to charter a bridge company.
Also his son, Washington Roebling, a Civil War hero who in his mid-twenties took over as Chief Engineer on his father’s untimely death. It was Washington Roebling who worked out every last engineering detail, and who recruited a fine engineering team to oversee the work — a team that, with only one resignation, remained in place for the fourteen years required to build the bridge.
A third Roebling was as important: Emily, Washington Roebling’s wife. When a severe case of the bends ruined her husband’s health (brought from too many hours breathing compressed air under the river, overseeing installation of the caissons on which the bridge rests), it was Emily who turned his dictated instructions into detailed written specifications, worked personally with the engineering team, reported progress and challenges back to her husband, and in general acted as second-in-command throughout most of the project.
The politicians of the day were the villains. Boss Tweed and his New York political machine were the most publicly detestable. The most vile, though, were board members who awarded the cable manufacturing contract to a crony who then delivered, quite deliberately, defective steel wire to the construction site.
No summary can do the book justice. Read it. When you’ve finished, you’ll understand that today’s politicians are nothing new. That doesn’t mean their lack of public courage is any more acceptable. It simply reinforces what we already know: Engineers create things that are new; politicians repeat the same old patterns, century after century, ad nauseum.
In the 1970s and preceding decades, the United States invested 3 percent of GDP on infrastructure. Since 1980 we’ve spent one third less and our infrastructure is deteriorating. It’s a pattern that is, by now, familiar: Politicians sell taxpayers on the idea that tax cuts are free. We just need to eliminate waste and be smarter about priorities.
Here’s another pattern: Bad logic about risk.
According to the Star Tribune’s investigative reporting, the engineers who last inspected the 35W bridge in Minneapolis prior to its collapse identified 52 steel beams at risk of cracking. They were sufficiently concerned to consider condemning the bridge, and recommended emergency measures to reinforce it.
Shortly before the project began, though, the same engineers reviewed their emergency measures and decided they carried too much risk of their own. The non-engineers who set policy in cases like this decided this meant doing nothing (ManagementSpeak: Developing “a more cost effective approach”) was a fine course of action.
One more pattern: Bad math when it comes to risk.
Imagine the risk of the 35W bridge’s collapse was 0.001%. That’s sufficiently remote that few would worry.
We know, though, that about 100,000 bridges have been rated the same or worse than the 35W bridge before its collapse. That would mean we have a 10% chance, every year, of another catastrophic bridge failure.
We don’t know the actual risks. If anyone does turn bridge ratings into probabilities of failure, it’s well hidden. One wonders why.
What does this have to do with keeping the joint running? Everything. You deal with the exact same challenges every day:
- Do more with less: Most CIOs have been handed budget cuts, then told there’s plenty of money — they just have to eliminate waste and set more effective priorities.
- Bad logic: Bridge engineers aren’t the only ones who find flaws in proposed solutions, only to be told that if that’s the case there’s no problem to solve.
- Bad math: An easy-to-handle example illustrates: If the risk of one server failing is 0.01% on any given day, the situation sounds manageable. Unless you have 1,000 servers in your data center.
Here’s why it’s relevant. Your job isn’t to be right about all of this, then to say I-told-you-so when something goes wrong.
It’s to establish strong enough working relationships throughout the business to be persuasive, to communicate risk and its consequences accurately enough to prevent its turning into reality.