The story of the Vasa, the innovative ship that sunk immediately

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What happens when the scope of a project is constantly changed?

Well, usually complete and utter failure.

In 1626, the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus was at war with Poland-Lithuania. In order to show Sweden’s strength and naval dominance, he ordered the construction of one of the most powerful naval ships ever built. The Vasa.

Construction was to be and overseen by Henrik Hybertsson (“Master Henrik”) who was shipwright at the Stockholm shipyard at the time. Originally, the plan was for the ship to be 108 feet long, and Hybertsson began cutting the required wood for the keel.

But then the king began making more and more demands about “improving” the design.

As Greg McKeown described on the Tim Ferris podcast:

This project was of utmost importance to King Gustav so much that he allowed a whole forest of a thousand trees to provide the lumber for the project. He opened the royal coffers to, he assured Hybertsson that he would have an almost unlimited budget to complete the project successfully. Unfortunately, the King did not have a clear vision of what the final product would look like, or rather he kept changing his vision of what the final product would look like. At first, the ship was to be 108 feet long with 32 cannons on deck. Later, the length was changed to 120 feet, even though the lumber had already been cut to the original specifications, but no sooner had Henrik’s team made the necessary adjustments that the target shifted again, this time the King decided that the ship needed to be 135 feet long.

The cannon requirements changed, as well. Instead of 32 cannons in a single row, he asked for 36 cannons in two rows, plus another 12 small cannons, 48 mortars, and 10 more similar caliber weapons. Tremendous effort was exerted by some 400 people to make this happen. But even as they approached completion, the King changed his mind again, asked for 64 large cannons instead. The stress of the news is said to have given Henrik a fatal heart attack. Still, the endless project continued this time under Henrik’s assistant Hein Jacobsson. Budgets continued to escalate. The effort continued to expand, and the King continued changing the end goal. In an utterly non-essential addition for a gunship. He asked for some 708 sculptures, which would take a team of expert sculptors more than two years to complete, to be attached to the sides of the bulwark and the transom of the ship and so it was.

The end result was a ship with cannons on decks much higher than you would normally design, and an incredibly unbalanced machine, covered in heavy, unnecessary decoration.

On the day of its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628, the ship left the Stockholm shipyard and began to float. However, a gust of wind then blew it over. It was so unbalanced that many of its canon-ports were submerged and the entire ship rapidly began to fill with water.

Less than a mile from the shipyard (1,300 meters), the most expensive ship in the Swedish navy sank to the bottom of the sea. 30 crew members lost their lives.

All because a king couldn’t stop changing his mind and asking for more and more improvements.

This can often happen when someone at executive level who is not involved in the design of a new innovation thinks it is their role to constantly improve the project, without being accountable for the execution. This is the danger of blindly following the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

If you want to prevent this happening to your own innovation project, then bring the decision makers on board where appropriate.

But agree the scope of the project as quickly as possible, and then validate if that scope is at all correct.

If it is not, then change the scope right at the beginning.

This can prevent the project scaling out of control, taking up budget and becoming too big to die.

And then when it is finally released, probably sinking immediately to the bottom of the sea.