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When Will They Ever Learn?


Thanks Joseph for your picture of that day.  I remember that cold, snowy day well.  I was in an office building in New Hampshire.  When Challenger blew up,, I was in a meeting in a computer company.  I was just off the cafeteria and soon everyone on site was in that cafeteria watching the monitors that presented the horrible news.  And here’s some irony: this was a computer company which was first with many innovations that still affect our lives, which was second only to IBM at the time, whose CEO was lauded in the press for his innovative leadership, but it was also a company known for rarely making clear decisions.  Rather than deciding on which products it would support (and which it would not), the company allowed multiple product lines to go forward, which then competed for organizational resources and confused customers.  Decision making was a key weakness. But at least no one died (except the company).

In 2005, as the report of the causes of space shuttle Columbia’s disaster were about to be released, seven members of the panel studying this latest disaster concluded that NASA’s ongoing “traits” like “smug” overbearing managers influencing key decisions were still present.  Diverse opinions were not heard, and more importantly, not integrated into what could be wiser overall decision.  As James Surowiecki wrote in The Wisdom of Crowds, “An intelligent group … does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.  Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms … to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think.”

So if effective, wise decisions are hard to find in the supposedly “objective” world of engineers, when lives truly are at stake, why should you think it would be any different in the day-to-day world of product launches?

No, Joseph, I’m not resigned to this situation, but it takes some willingness to a different way of meeting together.

Where have all the decisions gone?  Long time missing.  When will they ever learn?


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