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Of Shuttle Disasters and Management Meetings


NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics The Good Dr. Lent’s Challenger Disaster: For Lack of an Effective Meeting? is thought provoking in many ways.

First, to answer the obvious, I was in my office and, as usual, oblivious to all else when someone knocked and entered without waiting for my response. The fact that whoever it was didn’t wait for my response told me something major was happening.

“The Challenger,” my co-worker said, breathless. Many years of chain-smoking, late night pasta dinners and engineering at a draftman’s table had taken their toll on his once all-star tackle physique. “It’s gone.”

I looked at my wall clock. “Yes. It should have just lifted off,” I replied, unsure of the significance of his report.

“No, I mean it’s gone. It blew up. Completely. It’s gone.” He turned and briskly walked away.

I stared out my second story windows. Poplars, elms and birch stood sentinel in the late January cold, their naked limbs gently dancing in the light breeze. I could almost feel that breeze on my skin even though my windows couldn’t open. “Wait,” I called. “How long into its flight did it blow up?”

Someone else answered, “Seventy-Three seconds in,” their voice Doppler shifting from higher to lower pitch as they ran past my office door.

I thought for a second. Seventy-Three seconds in. Who’s software would have been operational at that point in the flight, I wondered. I closed my door and went back to work.

I do remember in the ensuing months being amazed to learn that Christa McAuliffe was the only person on board the Challenger. I discovered this by noting that hers was the only name in the news (from a “times-mentioned” perspective). I agreed with then Senator John Glenn’s comment, “There were seven people on board that spacecraft.”

I’m especially sensitive to Dr. Lent’s discussion of management. I’ve documented elsewhere an experience I had; Marketing announced when a product was going to be shipped, engineering responded that the product could never be ready by the ship date. The marketing director’s response was, “You don’t understand. It will ship and it will be a success.”1

The product shipped, it was a monumental failure, the engineering team was let go and the marketing director assumed another position in the company. Disasters scale according to the number of people affected, me thinks.

My take-away is that these days management decisions are increasingly made by lawyers. Expediency and exposure are greater concerns than product viability and consumer safety as the former more quickly affect stock value and investor equity. I will hope this is changing and I think the BP Oil Spill demonstrates no, it is not, not yet.

Put another way, when I’m at a meeting, the moment I hear someone say “We’re all adults here” I know any appeals to reason are lost and that the children will rule the day.

Was the Challenger Disaster avoidable? Yes. Were poor decisions the cause? Yes. It’s what those poor decisions were that people seem to miss.

The decision to launch was not the incorrect decision. As Dr. Lent points out, the incorrect decision was to not let all parties be heard.

1Failure: a case study

Stonewall’s Findings: Tech Naming Failures

Conversations with the Past, Part 10

Sweetness Findings: Apple’s IGoof


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