The night before NASA’s disastrous launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, engineers from Morton-Thiokol urged managers to delay. They were worried that the cold weather forecast for the next day would cause problems with the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints in the solid-fuel booster rockets. According to Diane Vaughan’s book The Challenger Launch Decision, George Hardy, NASA’s Deputy Director Science and Engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center was furious at Thiokol engineers and commented “I am appalled by your recommendation.” Ignoring the feedback, NASA launched the shuttle despite the cold weather. The O-rings failed, creating a terrible catastrophe that killed seven astronauts and put the entire space shuttle program to risk.
A Businessweek article recently commented on this incident and noted the fact that investigations into the disaster showed NASA was likely a victim of what is often called “groupidity.” This is a form of “group–think” causing individuals to take risks they individually recognize as stupid; simply because nobody else is speaking up.
The problem with “groupidity” is that few people will have the nerve/courage to speak their mind in the face of group pressure. People who present concerning information or are critical are often characterized as having bad social skills or being loaners.
There is an important lesson here for leaders:
1.) Constantly Seek Out Concerns – Throughout the life of a project, it’s important for a leader to constantly probe for what people think can make the project get off track. When people know the leader is anxious to hear any kind of information that could pertain to problems, they are much more apt to give you that information early which gives you time to probe appropriately and determine the seriousness of the concern.
2.) Don’t Be a Slave to the Calendar – When receiving alarming news at a late hour, it is maddening and the last thing a leader wants to do is to delay a project. On the other hand, that decision needs to be weighed very carefully. Every attempt should be made to probe any concerns that emerge.
3.) Beware of Defensiveness – Once we get a plan in our mind there is a natural defensive reaction to anything that is going to challenge that plan, especially when deadlines are near. This is the cause of “groupidity.” We need to be aware of that tendency and fight it at every stage.
In summary, always be on the alert for any hints of potential problems. Strong leaders are incredibly paranoid!