I recently had a conversation with Space Shuttle Commander and retired United Space Alliance CEO Dick Covey, a man who has advised me on two previous books, a sage that continues to serve as a source of advice and wisdom on current initiatives. Covey mentioned he had finished work on a documentary for Netflix, Challenger: The Final Flight. He recommended I watch it, knowing I have written extensively about the groupthink and general faulty decision-making that had led to the disaster. Covey had prepared me for a surprise, but not enough.
In the first of four episodes, the camera captured the exact moment of the explosion as someone exclaimed, “Major malfunction!” and Covey registered disbelief. I expected that. In fact, I anticipated much of what aired in the first episode. But the final episode brought the surprise.
In Risky Business, I pointed out that “reinforcements,” or those who haven’t been part of the original decision-making process, can prove invaluable before a group reaches a final decision. This happens because they can disturb the cognitive illusion of unanimity that occurs when the absence of obvious dissent leads group members to conclude others concur. This can then lead to collective rationalization, the process through which people invent justification for their actions, causing them to feel they are acting in the best interest of a team. A “safety in numbers” mentality develops that can lead to excessive risk-taking when the group feels accountable to no one. The risk-taking that led to the Challenger disaster illustrates how cognitive illusions can lead to tragic outcomes.
The Challenger Tragedy
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger launched at an unprecedented low air temperature, breaking apart 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The day before the disaster, executives at NASA had argued about whether the combination of low temperature and possible O-ring failure would be a problem. The evidence they considered was inconclusive, but more complete data would have pointed to the need to delay the launch.
The scientists at NASA and Morton Thiokol felt the pressure of their bosses and the media to find a way to stick to the original schedule. Because the group discouraged dissenters, an illusion of unanimity surfaced, and the collective rationalization that allowed decision-makers to limit their analysis led to their favoring a particular outcome—to launch on time.
Due to an extraordinary record of success of space flights, decision-makers developed an illusion of invulnerability, based on a mentality of overconfidence. After all, NASA had not lost an astronaut since the flash fire in the capsule of Apollo 1 in 1967. After that time, NASA had a string of fifty-five successful missions, including putting men on the moon. Both NASA scientists and the American people began to believe the decision-makers could do no wrong.
A Disruptive Mindset
The Challenger tragedy illustrates that when you are in the throes of cognitive illusions, you can’t always see or understand what’s happening. A Disruptive Mindset™, one that takes prudent but not reckless risks, depends on leaders structuring a systematic approach for evaluating alternatives. Impartial leaders refrain from expressing a point of view until they have painstakingly listened to the opinions of others. They assign devil’s advocates, invite outside experts to examine information further, and set a second-chance meeting that helps decision-makers avoid feeling “under the gun” by agreeing they will make no final decision during the first meeting.
Time and distance from the information allow people to avoid impulsiveness and quick-fix methodology. But they do more. When people can step away from their cognitive illusions and admit to being influenced by them, they give themselves a chance to carefully evaluate the truly important aspects of the decision.Courageous leaders do better. They admit mistakes, learn from them, and teach others how to do the same. They don’t hide behind processes or that’s-the-way-we-do-things-around-here thinking. Click To Tweet
Obviously, none of this happened before the launch of the Challenger, but it is surprising it didn’t happen after either. Some decision-makers still maintain they used all available information and don’t hold themselves accountable for the outcome. It happened at NASA, and it happens every day in organizations around the world.
Courageous leaders do better. They admit mistakes, learn from them, and teach others how to do the same. They don’t hide behind processes or that’s-the-way-we-do-things-around-here thinking. They apologize and move on, improving their decisions. They challenge conventional thinking, but more importantly, they challenge other challengers.