Sunday, November 22, 2020

When the Mission is the Problem

The mission is vital; it is the essence, after all, of what drives any organization.  But there are times that commitment to the mission may actually undermine core values that are more fundamental to the organization.  

When I was a counselor at Space Camp in the summer of 1992,  I knew little about the story behind the Challenger explosion which happened just six years earlier.  After watching the Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight, I was left with a sense of sadness about the seven lives which were prematurely and needlessly snuffed out, but I was simultaneously struck with lessons for leadership and organizational culture.

Engineers who worked on the solid rocket booster had documented concerns for years about the integrity of the seals which contained the extremely flammable fuel in the boosters.  Specifically, there were repeated alarms about the O-rings which were responsible for the seal.  Contract engineers, as well as some staff who worked within NASA, had maintained there needed to be a complete redesign of the seal.  But NASA was dependent on the national government for funding, and this entailed significant political pressure within the organization to maintain a rigorous flight schedule with the space shuttle program. They did not think they could afford to ground the fleet. 

The launch of Challenger, which was scheduled for late January in 1986, was delayed by thunderstorms around Cape Canaveral and then further threatened by a snap of sub-freezing temperatures.  As was routine, a team of NASA managers conducted a flight readiness review to ensure that the launch could move forward.  Because of the unusual cold weather, this involved meeting with the contractors who were responsible for the manufacture of the different systems within the space shuttle to ensure the mission was safe to proceed. The company, Morton Thiakol, was responsible for making the solid rocket booster.  

The engineers at Thiakol overwhelmingly recommended that the launch be delayed because of the cold weather.  In response, the Project Manager at Marshall Space Flight Center responded: "Good God, Thiokol!  When do you want me to launch, next April?"  After further deliberation, the managers at Thiokol overruled the engineers and gave approval for the launch.

An inquiry into the Challenger explosion by the Rogers Commission released a report which indicated the explosion was the result of a bad seal in the solid rocker booster, as well as a flawed decision making process which did not maintain the necessary safe guards for a successful and safe shuttle program. NASA executives felt political pressure from Congress to keep the shuttle missions on schedule.  That pressure was felt by the program managers, and it also trickled down to the contractors. 

Over 27 years in education, I can't tell you how many times I have witnessed colleagues avoid telling tough information to supervisors. They avoided hard conversations because the truth would be uncomfortable for the boss. They weren't sure how the administration would respond to news it didn't want to hear. In education, we need to have hard conversations about student achievement, staff morale, equity, the impact of a global pandemic on the school community, and myriad other issues. Leaders need to have these conversations, and in fact, cultivate them. They need to be willing to listen to bad news.  They need to be willing to hear the truth, even when it gets in the way of the "mission."  And they need to create a culture in the organization where everyone feels comfortable speaking up.





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