Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lessons from the Challenger Accident

Yesterday marked the 27th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle accident.  Still today many leadership programs and business schools study this awful tragedy.   We analyze it because it offers profound lessons about leadership, risk management, and decision-making.  

Let me offer three points that we should take away from this tragedy as we reflect on it today:

1.  Normalization of deviance.    Diane Vaughan wrote the seminal book on the Challenger accident in 1996.  In that book, she explained how organizations gradually come to accept more and more risk.   She described this normalization process whereby the unexpected gradually becomes the expected and then becomes the accepted.   All organizations should be wary of moving down that slippery slope.

2.   Advocacy vs. Inquiry.    Many people initially described the eve-of-the-launch teleconference as an example of groupthink.   I don't think that's correct.   Engineers from Morton Thiokol clearly were arguing against the launch.  The meeting did not lack dissent and disagreement.   The real problem was that both sides (for and against launch) were operating purely in advocacy mode.  Each side was pushing its position.  Neither side did much to truly learn from the other.   The entire group did not move into collective inquiry mode, seeking to understand the problem of O-ring erosion more deeply or the reasons for each side believing what it did.   Instead, they argued their positions with regard to the next morning's launch and became more and more entrenched and polarized.   Effective teams balance advocacy with inquiry, so as to have a more constructive dialogue and debate.

3.  Learning from our failures.   During the Columbia shuttle accident investigation, astronaut Sally Ride said, ""I think I'm hearing an echo here."  She meant that NASA had repeated many of the failures of the past.  While they had fixed the technical errors after Challenger (no more o-ring erosion), NASA executives had not fixed the leadership and cultural problems that contributed to the tragedy.  Those problems continued and contributed to the Columbia disaster many years later.  Successful organizations take a hard look at their failures, and they examine the broad range of causes for those failures...not just the technical issues.   

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