As a result, NASA is reassessing what is already a technically rigorous system of communication in hopes of creating honesty (even when it’s unpopular) and openness, top to bottom in the organization. However, there is a big difference between being technically rigorous and having a culture that engenders respect for different points of view. There are important business lessons to be learned here; while there may not be lives at stake, there are livelihoods.
Houston—You Have a Problem
In an emotional press conference last month, Linda Ham, the top NASA manager for the space shuttle Columbia’s final flight, discussed her decision not to take satellite photos of the shuttle before re-entry. Eighty-one seconds into the flight, video footage of the launch showed impact to the shuttle wing. Alarmed at the idea of wing damage, Rodney Rocha, a NASA engineer from the “problem resolution team,” sent two urgent e-mail messages to engineering managers requesting the use of spy satellites to get more detailed imagery. The first e-mail was ignored; the second was answered by managers who said they had no intention of using the satellites.
Satellite photos could have detected damage to the shuttle wing. Ham said, “We all take some personal responsibility for this, and I certainly feel accountable.” Ham is not fully to blame for the Columbia disaster. According to members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), key NASA officials, from rank-and-file engineers to the highest echelons of leadership, used faulty assumptions to make even faultier decisions that led to a disaster they think could have been prevented.
Read some of the quotes from key NASA officials, board members and managers from a recent article by R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post:
- “It’s a particular culture, has its own rules and own behavior patterns. …In the Columbia accident, clearly there were people in the agency who tried to raise the problem and found resistance, and by the end of the mission had given up.”
- “The NASA team leaders think they’re way smarter than their record indicates, and they can use a little more humility and a little more anxiety in the way they approach their profession—or find another.”
- “There was not a ‘collective curiosity.’”
NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe recently told employees that he is committed to “creating an atmosphere in which we’re all encouraged to raise our hand and say something’s not right or something doesn’t look safe.”
John Logsdon, a board member and George Washington University Expert on space policy, attributed a lot of the bad decision making and collaboration to “long-standing cultural defensiveness, sense of isolation from the public and know-it-all culture—a sense that they are more special and knowledgeable than anyone else.”
Interesting that we’re not hearing words like “technical expertise” or “scientific competence” from these officials and leaders. Rather, we’re hearing words like “humility,” “anxiety,” “atmosphere” and “defensiveness.” Fundamentally, the chronic problem with most organizations is not technical expertise—it’s human expertise and personal maturity.
Technical Brilliance, Collaboration Collapse
There is perhaps no other group of scientists in the world who have such specialized expertise and who work on such sophisticated, expensive and collaborative projects as NASA. Ham is a terrifically intelligent woman with tremendous expertise, yet her foresight was limited and would have benefited from listening carefully, and respectfully, to people who had knowledge and intuition outside her intellectual and emotional periphery.
It’s simply not enough to be technically brilliant at what you do or have years of experience. In fact, it can be dangerously myopic. It’s equally important to “stay up” on things like being open and honest, having the courage to “raise your hand” and inject curiosity into your life and your corporation’s culture—healthy anxiety.
The cultural dysfunction that led to the Columbia tragedy at NASA has its parallel in the business world as well. The corporate world is no better, and in some cases it is worse. Before we judge, let’s just be grateful that most of us don’t have lives on the line when making our key decisions. We may fare no better.
You’re Not So Hot, Either
In 20 years of study, Paul Nutt, Ph.D., of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, found that more than 50 percent of all business decisions fail—completely fail. With such high failure rates, it would be safe to assume that businesspeople are aware of the failures and are adjusting accordingly, right? Wrong. In a recent study, 818 professionals and managers were asked about their confidence in the quality of their business decisions over the past three years. Ninety-one percent said that their confidence had increased or stayed the same!
Although we’re confident, we’re also reasonably blind to some “addictions” we all have in business. If you think ego and politics hurt government, you should see what it does to your company. Political pressure or the intensity of a decision often prevents people from facing the facts that are crucial to the company. Pressure pushes decisions to get needlessly rushed, pushed through and onto people, which leads to the first option being taken instead of the best option, and the real issues don’t get put on the table.
According to research, nearly one-third of all decisions are driven by ego, and there are generally three signs that great ideas are being sacrificed at the expense of “me, myself and I”:
- Showcasing brilliance. Rather than staying focused on the real issues at hand, people are more interested in arrogantly getting their own point of view accepted and funded, often driven by personal insecurity and not what’s in the best interest of the business.
- Being defensive. When opposition to an idea is voiced, rather than really exploring the opposing point of view, people dig in to prove they are right and, often most important, that the other person is wrong.
- Seeking approval. The quietest, smoothest meetings are often the most dangerous. It’s often a sign that while things are quiet, a storm is brewing and will hit the minute the meeting is over. People often acquiesce and don’t share their best thinking at the expense of the company’s growth and profit.
Addicted to Speed
Ego isn’t the only downfall of companies and managers. One of the reasons many businesspeople make bad decisions is because they mistake activity (“I’m busy”) for productivity (“getting the right things done”). They race to finish initiatives and projects before really thinking through the crux of the business issues. People are under intense pressure to just “get it done,” and so they race to some imaginary finish line and lose a critical eye in their sprint.
Often the pressure unnecessarily dictates the need to make real-time project decisions too fast—people don’t really test their thinking in the projects they launch. There are people that love to get “out of the box” and adopt and implement almost every idea that’s brought to the table, but they often don’t slow down long enough to think critically and make sure the idea really addresses what’s important. Because they don’t get back “in the box” and really examine the ideas, companies suffer the losses of the rushed idea they adopted.
Consider the following quote from the founding editors of Fast Company: “There was a time when innovation wore the uniform of the revolution. When the operating assumption was that any smart, young whippersnapper of a company could overthrow its big, old, slow rivals through raw creative power. When innovation happened outside the box, outside conventional wisdom, and sometimes outside the realm of reason. That was then—this is now. Innovation today is about thinking inside the box.”
The operative word in the quote is “thinking.” We need people who will think creatively outside the box and eventually get back in the box to make sure they understand the real parameters of the opportunity. Their own experience in or out of the box often stifles the thinking.
A Lack of Curiosity
What you currently know often gets in the way of what you need to know but don’t. It often serves as a filter that limits curiosity. The knowledge you gain from your life instills certain beliefs. When you think you know something, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that there is no longer a need to slow down and ask questions or consider other viewpoints. That’s where the problems begin. It’s apparently where it started with the Columbia. The passion and grip with which we hold onto beliefs blocks curiosity.
People even talk about beliefs in possessive ways: “I don’t buy that”; you hold a belief or cling to your opinions or defend your position; or else you lose faith and abandon your convictions. The disease of conformity and indifference sets in when you do, and although it may take some time before the symptoms of intellectual apathy show up in results, they inevitably will.
For example, there was a furniture store that was having a problem with sales in electronics. After somewhere between 18 months and two years on the job, top salespeople would unexpectedly slip into a tailspin, and their individual sales would nosedive. In an attempt to spot the difference, researchers watched veterans and compared them to the rookies just learning the ropes. It turned out that six months was about the time it took for salespeople to learn all there was to know about the products they were selling. As a result, the veterans didn’t ask clients as many questions as the rookies did. The more they came to know, the more they talked. When a customer came in, they would simply blab on about the features and benefits of the product. They stopped asking questions!
In contrast, the rookies didn’t know anything about the product itself, so they were anxious to keep the discussion focused on the customers and their needs. Because they had little to tell, they were forced to get better at asking questions. In the end, management attributed the sales problem primarily to too much product knowledge. They solved the problem by rotating salespeople every 18 months to a new department to keep the curiosity alive. Every time you revert back to only what you already know, you prevent yourself from gaining a deeper understanding that would allow you to get it right for yourself, your company and your clients. Stay open to new information, even if it intimidates you, and use it to refresh your experience and knowledge rather than allowing yourself to feel as if new information puts you at risk. NASA, perhaps, needed a few more people who saw themselves as “rookies” or at least the humility to a contrary point of view.
NASA’s Clean Record
In her press conference, Linda Ham related that NASA’s culture would need to be “fixed” before flights resume. NASA has launched more than 100 flights in the past four decades, two of which have led to the deaths of flight crews. If only taken out of 100, that is a failure rate of 2 percent. Despite such a low incidence record, NASA has been grounded, subject to months of inquiry, grilled in congressional hearings and had its very existence questioned.
Fortunately, lives are not usually at stake for the failures in a company’s marketing department—viability is. If companies are seeking for ways to become more profitable, they can begin by kicking the habits of ego, mind-numbing activity, a lack of curiosity or unnecessary speed. Organizations will make mistakes. You will make mistakes. The question is, how long will it take you to learn from them?
Steve Smith and Dave Marcum are the authors of “businessThink,” an internationally best-selling book that has been published in 13 languages in more than 27 countries. You can take a free businessThink profile for you or your organization by visiting www.businessthink.biz. Contact Steve and Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 5 Forces Shaping the Future of HR
- Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’
- Leadership development should begin with “why” — and that’s usually not behavior change
- Change is incumbent on all of us
- Visions and missions — defining your value and purpose proposition
- The Reskilling Revolution versus the ‘clay layer’
- When the leader can’t return to the office