Paul Kedrosky, a venture investor, wrote a very interesting column for The New Yorker about the Volkswagen scandal. He does not introduce new facts, but instead speculates as to how the ethical and legal transgressions may have taken place. He draws upon Diane Vaughan's great work on the Challenger space shuttle accident. In her research, Vaughan describes a phenomenon that she calls the "normalization of deviance." It's a process whereby we gradually engage in riskier behavior. We don't jump over the line from legal/ethical to illegal/unethical. Instead, we inch our way there over time. As Vaughan puts it, "the unexpected becomes the expected becomes the accepted" over time. In short, what may look very risky or irresponsible in hindsight actually came to be viewed as acceptable by decision makers in a gradual process that unfolded over a lengthy period of time. With each incremental step down the slippery slope, people established a "new normal." The next deviation didn't seem so large, because it wasn't being compared against the original standard of behavior. Instead, it was being compared against the new normal established in the recent past. Kedrosky explains how the normalization of deviance may have played out at Volkswagen. Investigators should definitely examine this aspect of organizational behavior. In no way does this explanation excuse the behavior, but it does help us understand how such things happen in large organizations. Here's Kedrosky's hypothesis:
If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers... Faced with an expensively engineered diesel engine that couldn’t meet strict emissions standards, Volkswagen engineers “tuned” their engine software. And they kept on tuning it, normalizing deviance along the way, until they were far from where they started, to the point of gaming the emissions tests by detecting test conditions and re-calibrating the engine accordingly on the fly.