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Project lessons from the Great Train Robbery: Familiarity breeds contempt

UK history was made on the 8th of August 1963 when £2.6 million in cash was stolen from a Royal Mail train. The “Great Train Robbery” has entered the collective consciousness of British culture as a daring heist executed by cool criminals, many of whom stayed on the run and evaded capture for years.


The facts behind the Great Train Robbery are astonishing.  The cash (equivalent to about £43 million today) was carried in an unguarded compartment, and was stored in sacks (rather than a safe).  Looking at this arrangement in the cold light of day, it’s easy to ask why the risk hadn’t been foreseen.  I’m no expert in rail security – but if I was transporting over £40 million, I’d make sure it was locked and guarded!  In many ways, it could be seen as a robbery waiting to happen.


However, the train had run consistently and without issue or loss for 125 years.  Knowing this fact makes it easier to understand why nobody perceived the risk.  If something works successfully for 125 years, why change it?


What this example highlights is that successful repetition of any business activity can lead to a false sense of security. There can often be an assumption that because something has worked in the past it’ll always work in the future.


This doesn’t just apply to trains, a UK study showed 21% of drivers involved in car accidents at junctions had “looked, but failed to see [danger]”. They’d probably been at the junction hundreds of times before, and were really just going through the motions rather than being truly vigilant to risk.  If you want to test your own selective perception, check out this enlightening online video by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.


In business and projects, this false sense of security (paired with selective perception) can often be verbalised with statements like:


“If it aint broke, don’t fix it”

“Well, we’ve always done it that way here”

“We’ve been a successful company for 50 years, we’re not changing our ways now”


However, today’s business environment is difficult and now more than ever organisations need to make sure they are doing the right things and doing them right.   Ensuring their processes are effective, efficient and secure should no longer be seen as a distraction but as an essential activity. Good quality business analysis is essential to achieve this.



This article was first published on on 7 November 2012

2 thoughts on “Project lessons from the Great Train Robbery: Familiarity breeds contempt”

  1. Seems obvious when you see it written down – but I couldn’t agree more! An established process that is never reviewed is a disaster waiting to happen! And it will go wrong at the worst possible moment!

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