Max Wideman first wrote about the Leaning Tower of Pisa back in December 1999 in a tongue-in-cheek "Max's Musings" entitled Risk: Failure or Opportunity? In it he used the example to show how an apparently dismal project failure can turn out to be a resoundingly successful opportunity. Now, Kimberly Gerson has kindly done some serious research on the "Pisa Project" and presents it here for your enlightenment.
Published here April 2003.

Introduction | The Vision | Where Angels Fear to Tread 
Indecision Leads to Inaction | Lessons Not Learned | Not On My Watch 
Where So Many Others Have Failed | References

Where Angels Fear to Tread

But, like many a project where enthusiasm and visions of grandeur override thoughtful planning, the warning signs of potential failure came early. Though the emerging tower was beautiful — the marble pure, the columns geometrically precise — this façade hid an underlying weakness. First the builders noticed little problems — bricks that didn't align; cracks that formed seemingly overnight; an odd shift in the way things were sitting in relation to the ground. Then finally, a distinct lean to the north.

This testament to symmetry — the marble glory of Pisa — it seemed, had feet of clay. Or silt to be more precise. Nobody had bothered (or known) to check the substrate on which the tower was being built. Instead of a solid foundation of bedrock, the glorious Tower of Pisa was being constructed over the soft shifting silt of a long-buried riverbed. And she was sinking fast.

The entire project was now on shaky ground. Literally and figuratively.

Not deterred however, the team continued forward. Rather than disrupt the project timeline and start over on firmer footing, or god-forbid redefine the project in its entirety, they would simply compensate for the lean. Surely it didn't matter if the tower had a bit of tip to it, as long as it appeared level to observers on the ground. To this end they came up with an ingenious plan: to make the columns and arches on the north side of the tower slightly taller than those on the south. This would serve to lift the north edges of the floors and make them level. With that quick decision, their structural problem was solved — or so they thought.

For five years they built steadily, always with one eye on the gradually increasing slant of the floors, adjusting column height accordingly. But the project lost steam in 1178 and the builders ceased work. The tower was taking too long, the workforce was needed for more important matters of state, the imperfection was an eyesore, apparent even to those who would have rather turned a blind eye, and Pisan leaders needed to turn their attention to more worldly issues of the day, like war for example. After only three and half floors, the project was put on indefinite hold.

Now, it turns out that this was fortunate if not for the overall project, at least for that project team. The compensating fix that the builders were applying was threatening the very integrity of the tower itself. Had they continued with their construction and finished the fourth floor, the pride of Pisa would have surely toppled over.

The Vision  The Vision

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