At the time of the Challenger accident in January of 1986, I was working for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. I witnessed the explosion from a few miles away. We lost seven souls that day and set the space program back for years. The pressure to launch, funding and politics caused NASA to ignore the engineering, safety regulations and standard protocols. Our long history of leadership failed us that day.
What can we learn about business leadership from this tragic event? First, we need processes, protocols and procedures to keep leaders from making emotional decisions based on anything but data and experience. Without some degree of structure and discipline, we are vulnerable to human emotion. In my 10 years in the risk management industry, only about 10 percent of my business clients had buy/sell agreements with their partners. Their partners were typically relatives or friends for 20 years before they went into business together. They all said, “Oh, we aren’t worried about that. We’re close. There won’t be a problem.” Unfortunately, when an extreme situation arises and decisions must be made on the spot with no guidelines, we divert to our human nature, which is mostly self-preservation. We will do what is in our own self-interest. Spouses will take over companies or demand their share of what they think the business is worth. Partners will do the same. Money, power and success will make us do extraordinary things. Things we never dreamed of. Things that are totally out of character and circumvent every boundary we have in place to avoid such poor decision making.
NASA leadership made a poor decision and every company or organization, especially large ones, is susceptible to this sort of decision making. Safety is one of the top values of the NASA culture. I used to joke that every time a technician turned a wrench on a piece of flight hardware, 17 people had to sign a document. The numbers may not be exact, but you get the point. Eight of those 17 are first line managers and supervisors responsible for the actions of the technician. The other nine are signing to verify that the managers and supervisors agreed. Extreme? Maybe. An example of government and large corporation protocols at their most absurd? Sure. A level of protocol required when people’s lives are at stake? Absolutely!
So how do we keep this emotional, biased decision making from happening? The simple answer is that we have to put strict boundaries in place to help us avoid such decision making and then we have to stick to the boundaries. These boundaries can take many forms from simple standard procedures to legal documents like a buy/sell agreement between business partners. Whether a procedure or a legal document, the boundary has to be strong enough to keep us from overriding it in a time of crises when decision makers are emotional and biased. When money, power and prestige are at stake, our judgement is suspect.
I urge every business owner and organizational leader to make risk management a priority. Review policies, procedures and legal documents that come into play in times of extreme operational environments or emergencies. If these decision-making guidelines do not sufficiently restrict the options of decision makers and specifically prohibit them from making emotional, biased decisions not based on facts, reliable data or actual experience, then update them. In addition, to test your risk management protocols, run live scenarios that simulate extreme situations. Before he or she flies, a NASA astronaut has simulated hundreds of emergency scenarios. Why? In sports, we call it muscle memory. In engineering, we use procedures to ensure that decisions made under extreme conditions have been documented and practiced over and over so that, when the time comes, when the success of the mission and lives are on the line, we simply execute without emotion or bias.
That January 1986 morning in Florida, icicles were hanging off the orbiter, the external tank, the solid rocket motors and the launch pad. We had never launched under those conditions. The hardware had never been tested under those conditions. Thiokol engineers sounded the alarm. The communication was received by NASA decision makers. Unfortunately, the guidance was ignored. The normal protocols were overridden. The pressure to launch, to be successful, to stay on budget and schedule, were too great. Decision makers used emotion and bias to make a critical and ultimately fatal decision. Seven people perished that morning including Christa McAuliffe, a civilian and teacher who was planning to teach class to students all over the world from space.
The bottom line is this: If the critical decision-making processes and protocols are wrong, then change them… NOW! Ignore them at your peril.
David Moody has held leadership positions in NASA, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Arkansas state government and served as an owner/chief executive for companies in the energy technology, risk management, retail and business-consulting industries. His business-consulting firm, Jacksson David LLC is focused on helping small- to mid-sized companies start up, survive and thrive by providing strategic guidance, executive coaching, sales and operational expertise and most importantly, serving as a trusted partner and resource to their clients. David is a writer and speaker on leadership, faith, entrepreneurship and NASA. His newest initiative is a faith-based executives group.