Hubble, Challenger, and Scottsdale

What do they have in common?

The Techworld (Australia) website published an article yesterday about how the “social context” in which decisions are made is the predominant force in the success of those decisions. Does that sound familiar?

For this article, Techworld interviewed NASA’s former director of astrophysics, Charlie Pellerin. He was running the show when the $3 billion Hubble Space telescope was unknowingly launched with a flawed calibration that rendered it effectively useless. So he knows firsthand how really, really smart people (even rocket scientists) can make flawed  decisions that lead to project failure.

In the article, Pellerin says,

…social context is a 78-80 per cent determinant of performance; individual abilities are 10 per cent. So why do we make this mistake? Because we spend all of these years in higher education being trained that it’s about individual abilities.

Pellerin successfully regrouped the Hubble team and focused them on finding and fixing the flaw. The implementation was arguably more newsworthy than the flaw itself. But, more importantly to Pellerin, the takeaway was understanding how the flaw happened and then went unnoticed.

In his ‘life after NASA,’ Pellerin studied and taught leadership. He also discovered Diane Vaughan’s book, The Challenger Launch Decision.

What she said is, the real question is not the technical question. The real question is, why did they continue with the launch when all the data said they shouldn’t? She said that there are social forces at play that are forever invisible and unmanageable. And it’s most unfortunate she said… She named the phenomenon “normalisation of deviance.”

In particular, Pellerin was struck by

…Vaughan’s assertions that the destruction of Challenger was a product of “invisible forces and therefore unmeasurable and therefore unmanageable”. Unmeasurable and unmanageable didn’t sit well with Pellerin.

Pellerin’s solution was describing organizational behaviors that could better meet the “needs” of the individuals who collectively are responsible for the organizations success:

“If I meet people’s needs, we’re going to be improving performance,” he says. The needs include things like “Mutual respect, enjoyable work”, “Authentic, aligned, efficient action” while behaviours cover such points as “Express authentic appreciation” and “Appropriately include others”.

So how to fix the problem?

[Pellerin’s] training focuses on questions of the social context in which a team operates, rather than just looking at a team as a group of atomised individuals.

I hope you can afford the time to read the article. It isn’t so technical that it will put you to sleep.

I think there are important lessons that we can draw from it and the events it describes. Those lessons are directly applicable to the conflicts that we face right here in Scottsdale that have recently manifested in the defeat of Proposition 430 General Plan change.

For several days I’ve been working on a long article comparing and contrasting the various perspectives in the Monday-morning quarterbacking that has been underway since the election. I’ll wrap that up this weekend.

Meanwhile, the most important action our city leaders can undertake is rebuilding a culture of genuine inclusion. That Scottsdale is a great place to live and visit is largely due to Scottsdale’s residents who have made it so and hope to keep it that way. To ignore them is to foster a culture of exclusion that will lead to disaster.

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