It’s often said that we learn from our mistakes. Without a doubt, Charlie Pellerin would agree.
Throughout the 1980s, Pellerin, then director of the astrophysics division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was overseeing the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. One of the most ambitious projects in space exploration history, Hubble promised to provide scientists with crystal-clear images of the universe that would far surpass those of ground-based telescopes.
“It was the most complex thing we’d ever done,” said Pellerin, author of How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft Skills for Scientists, Engineers, and Project Teams and president of 4-D Systems, a manufacturer of smart display modules. “What made it difficult was the Hubble Telescope had to be able to point at a given location in space with the precision of seven thousandths of an arc-second for 24 hours at a time. That’s the angle a 25-cent piece — a quarter — makes at a distance of 200 miles. Nobody had ever done anything like this before, and if we missed it by even, say, a factor of 10 to the 70, the telescope would’ve been a total loss.”
After years of designing, building and planning, NASA was finally ready to launch the telescope in April of 1990. Various global media outlets were to broadcast the transmission of the first images live on television. Slowly but surely, the first picture scrolled into view. That’s when the world held its breath.
“I’ve got the chief engineer for the program sitting next to me, and I said, ‘It looks kind of fuzzy, doesn’t it?’” Pellerin recalled. A week later, headlines blared: “National Disaster: Hubble Launched With Flawed Mirror.”
“Life was not the same from that moment forward,” Pellerin said. “We had congressional hearings. We had the brunt of late-night comedy and everything else. It was horribly embarrassing.”
To find out what went wrong, a failure review board was formed. Pellerin said he was made the NASA liaison because of his perceived neutrality: The mirror was built in 1977 and he came on board in 1982. After months and months of research by the world’s most noted optical specialists, it was determined that the error was due to a technician misplacing the tool used to polish the mirror by about a centimeter. More important, however, the review board discovered there were numerous measurements taken during the development of the program where a problem had been indicated.
“But the contractor never acted on them, and the reason they didn’t was they were under so much pressure from our constant overruns and so much grief from us that they had no time to go take on these kinds of extra jobs,” Pellerin said. “And they were able to rationalize it away every time. When Lou Allen, [former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory], told the Congress how we spent $1.7 billion in 15 years building a telescope that wouldn’t work, he said the root cause was a leadership failure on NASA’s part.”
Pellerin began to reflect seriously on this issue.
“Something happened that we never thought about, never talked about. And it trumped the work of some of the best scientists in the world,” he said. “I spent a whole summer trying to study what everyone thought leadership was about and make some kind of organizing system.”
With a Ph.D. in astrophysics, Pellerin applied his knowledge of science to come up with a paradigm for leadership, resulting in a two-axis coordinate arrangement that he called the “4-D System.”
“There was a recurrent pattern that said people need four things from leaders,” Pellerin explained. “[We] need to feel valued. We need to feel included — we need to feel we’re part of a group. The third one turned out to be that we need to have a realistic and hopeful future. And the fourth one is we need to understand what others expect of us and have the resources to do it successfully. So I call those the four dimensions.”
These four dimensions together create what Pellerin calls the “social context” of the workplace, and good leadership is about managing them for success.
“No amount of individual training would’ve prevented the Hubble mirror fail. No amount of individual training would’ve prevented the Challenger disaster. Every space disaster, every single one of them, was a flawed social context that led to a technical error,” he said.
Learning executives can help foster the right social context as well as teach organizational leaders how to create better teams by taking the following actions, Pellerin said.
- Assess and benchmark. Pellerin developed a series of free 15-minute assessments that learning leaders can access at www.4-dsystems.com to get the process started.
- Pay attention to what matters. “Attention is a very, very limited resource,” Pellerin said. “Shift your attention to what you’re not used to thinking about. [Notably, pay] attention to the things that matter in the human condition.”
- Change your behavior. “When you read a book, it feels like you’re doing something, but you’re not,” Pellerin said. “The reason the assessments work to change behavior is they’re very brief. There are eight questions. Repetition is the most powerful. When people go through this assessment, they get the repetition of the rationale for it; they get told over and over what good looks like, because that’s the standard. We don’t change our habits immediately, but it works.”