It happened early one morning in 1986. The Space Shuttle Challenger was sitting on the launch pad ready for launch. It was 18 deg F outside.

The now infamous O-rings on the Shuttle were designed and tested to perform in 40 deg F or above. NASA knew this. The contractor (Morton-Thiokol) knew this also. But NASA wanted to launch. The team of engineers experienced with the O-rings assembled and debated (again) whether they could be sure the O-rings would not fail at the low temp.

On a conference call with the engineers, senior leaders, and NASA, the engineering team recommended waiting until the temperature reached above the 40 deg mark. Due pressure from NASA and the willingness of senior managers at Morton-Thiokol to ignore the recommendation of its engineers, the company changed its decision. NASA got the green light they wanted.

The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into the flight, killing everyone on board.

How to create a Catastrophe:

When a corporate culture fails, often, there is a pervasive culture of fear involved.

The leadership pattern that doomed the Shuttle Challenger is alive and well in many organizations and industries. This pattern is all too predictable.

  1. A problem is known by the team members closed to the issue.
  2. The problem is raised to the attention of senior leadership.
  3. The problem is inconvenient.
  4. Instead of addressing the problem, the questioning parties are ignored, minimized, or silenced.
  5. The operation continues until…. Something Catastrophic happens
  6. Seniors leadership either look for someone to blame or brush it under the rug.

Catastrophes don’t always need to kill people, like on the Challenger. (As a side note, this same pattern lead to the two Boing 737Max planes crashing and killing everyone on board). Some are large, public failure, but many never see the light of day.

The vast majority of catastrophes are hidden deep within the walls of an organization. Large amounts of money and time are lost. People are minimized or fired. Scapegoats are named, and then the situation is conveniently forgotten.

The Solution:

So, how can this be addressed? The solution is simple but very difficult to implement. It’s call Inclusion. Not just the inclusion of people based on external traits but the inclusion of ideas.

Many companies have focused on inclusion efforts on external traits like color, race, ethnicity, etc. That is a great start! But these external traits don’t always result in a diversity of ideas.

Real inclusion is about the inclusion of dissenting opinions.

Real inclusion is hard work. It involved setting the ego aside and listening, truly listening, to a different opinion. Not listening to respond, but listening to understand. It is about taking a stance of humility and trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

The O-ring engineers were included on a teleconference the night before the launch of the Challenger. The engineer’s recommendation was reversed by senior managers on a second conference call were the engineering where excluded.

What would have happened if the engineers were not silenced?

When have you excluded people because you don’t want to hear their opinion? What Catastrophe are you contributing to?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash