Project Lessons from the Great Train Robbery | TechWell

Project Lessons from the Great Train Robbery

UK history was made 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 of 1963 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 were transporting more than £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 will always work in the future.

This doesn’t just apply to trains. A UK study showed that 21 percent of drivers involved in car accidents at junctions had "looked, but failed to see [danger]." They had 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 selective attention test video by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.


In software projects, business stakeholders often verbalize this false sense of security
paired with selective perceptionwith statements like:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Well, we've always done it that way.
We've been a successful company for fifty years, so we're not changing our ways now.

Business analysts and the entire development team need to guard against these dangers. Today’s business environment is difficult, and now more than ever organizations 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.

How do you and your organization guard against selective perception and a false sense of security?

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