Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lessons from the Columbia Accident

10 years ago tomorrow (February 1st, 2003), the Columbia shuttle accident occurred.  After the tragedy occurred, my colleagues and I embarked upon a lengthy research project culminating in the creation of an award-winning multi-media case study, a book chapter, a Harvard Business Review article, and other materials.  What lessons did we derive from this tragedy?

1.   NASA had a culture in which many people did not feel safe speaking up.  As a result, people downplayed their concerns about the foam strike, rather than sharing them openly.   Leaders did not do enough to cultivate dialogue and dissent.  They tended to be very passive, assuming that bad news would surface on its own.  It rarely does.  Leaders need to draw out the bad news, as it does not usually rise to the top.  

2.  Framing the shuttle program, from the very beginning in the 1970s, as a routine, operational endeavor turned out to have long-lasting detrimental effects.   The shuttle program should have been framed as an experimental initiative.  Promising dozens of flights per year, naming the vehicle a "shuttle" and describing space travel as "routinized" pushed the organization away from its roots during Mercury and Apollo as a laboratory of exploration.   The adoption of the production/routine mindset contributed to an obsession with schedules and deadlines, the creation of rigid organizational processes and protocols, and an insufficient emphasis on the imperfect state of knowledge in the organization. In short, it meant that the organization did not have a sufficient learning orientation. 

3.  Managers at NASA exhibited what Rebecca Wohlstetter has described as a "stubborn attachment to existing beliefs."  They had become convinced that foam strikes could not damage the shuttle.   The confirmation bias exacerbated the problem.   They tended to look for data that confirmed this pre-existing belief, and they discounted signs that contradicted the conventional wisdom about foam. 

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