Engineering a company: What startups can learn from a bridge collapse in 1979


By Phillip Bogdanovich

About that bridge

In 1979, construction finished on suspended atrium walkways that connected sections of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency hotel. Just two years later, the walkways collapsed and crashed to the floor of the atrium, killing 114 people and injuring another 216. The original designs were considered safe, though they were ambitious for the time. Poor planning, last-minute changes, and arrogance led to failure of the walkway. That same kind of thinking will kill a startup before it can realize its full potential.

For most things I live by the motto, “Do it once; do it right.” Planning is perpetual; it’s not something you ever really complete. Plans should be implemented with guidelines, but be flexible enough to allow for the real world to happen.

From the beginning, the bridge design was aesthetically pleasing—but not functional. It called for a specific securement system that in retrospect wouldn’t sustain more than 60 percent of the required bridge load capacity at once. This insufficiency remained an oversight until after the collapse, but if the team had been aware and willing to revise the plan, they would have identified and corrected the issue. They would have been in a state of perpetual planning.

What we can learn from that bridge collapse?

Set a roadmap with your company, but be flexible. Set guidelines for revenue, logistics, management, and customer service. Don’t assume your initial plan is the best version of your plan. It isn’t. When change happens, flow with it. Continue planning past the horizon, and when you have visibility of your horizon, revise your plan. There are two indelible truths I learned when I was in the military:

    1. There are no thieves in the Marine Corps. Everyone is just trying to get their shit back.
    2. No plan, no matter how good, survives first contact in a gun fight.

The walkways’ initial plans were risky. The revised plans were worse. A conflict arose between JG&A (the engineering company) and Havens Steel Company (the company producing a component of the securement system). Havens didn’t think the rods designed by JG&A would actually survive installation. So JG&A approved a redesign of the rods proposed by Havens.

Then they installed the walkways. They hung the second-floor walkway from the fourth-floor walkway, which was hung from the ceiling. Think about that for a minute. The original design already held only 60% of the load it was supposed to, and now the problem was compounded by suspending one bridge from the other. It’s ok to say, “WHAT THE FUCK.” I did.

As crazy as this oversight-turned-catastrophe sounds, it happens frequently with startups. Executives assume their vision is best for the company and tend to take full responsibility for their “work space.” This is what I call “good initiative, bad judgment.”

Taking responsibility is key to running a successful division, and it makes employees feel good about their jobs and their work environment. No one likes to be babysat. Taking responsibility also means recognizing that an objective second look can prevent your company from crashing to the ground and killing 114 people. Don’t plan or implement a process that moves so fast it can’t be backstopped by an objective review. Not a total plan overhaul—don’t panic—just a review.

Executives are arrogant to some degree. We have to be. We know we can be successful even when there is great evidence to the contrary. Great executives generally believe that if they’re given enough time, they can be successful at anything. This is a defining characteristic of a visionary. It’s also the kind of arrogance that prevents stripping a beautiful plan down to the minutia, looking at its guts, and evaluating it objectively. “It’s beautiful and it works because I thought of it.” No; no it doesn’t.

Be brilliant. Be a visionary. Be fearless. And always get a second opinion.


Phillip Bogdanovich is the co-founder, CEO, and chief product engineer behind Hyperion Energy Group. An Austin-based green technology company, Hyperion’s product ecosystem includes real-time energy monitoring systems, wireless lighting controls, an energy audit app, and commercial-grade LED lighting. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Phillip was a team and company medic with a Marine Reconnaissance unit. He’s just trying to get his shit back.

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