Rocket Science

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 10 – May 11, 2005

I may have told some of you that one of my brothers is a rocket scientist, no I am not joking. He lives in Houston by Cape Canaveral and works for Lockheed Martin they make plane parts, rockets, WMD’s, they are contracted to NASA. My brother and I don’t talk much, it is not that we don’t like each other or don’t get along, there is just little that someone of my intellectual capacity can share with someone of his intellectual capacity.

My brother is working on a new project which he hopes will go better than his last; the last project was called Columbia. You may have heard about the Space Shuttle, it disintegrated on returning from a mission after hot gasses entered the craft through a hole punched in its wing. The hole was made by foam debris that fell off the shuttle during ascent, all seven crew members on board Columbia died that day. Can you imagine what that would feel like to have your colleagues blow up? Sometimes we wish it would happen, which is why my Mother always said you must be careful of what you wish for, but if it did what would that do for workplace moral?  What would be even worse for workplace moral would be to learn after investigations that it wasn’t just the foams fault. The real reasons that Columbia blew up are far more complex and unsettling.

According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Report NASA suffered from the symptoms of the perfect place. Its decision making was marked with unwarranted optimism and overconfidence, and this led to a warped outlook on safety. Frontline engineers had requested photos of the damaged shuttle, but these were denied, the big guys didn’t think it was important to listen those in the trenches.  The result was the engineer’s feared ridicule for expressing their concern about the foam that flew off, so remained quiet. The culture at NASA created a situation with the engineers that is similar to Shapelle Corby’s predicament with the Indonesian court system – they had to prove that the situation was unsafe rather than prove it was safe, backwards considering what was at stake.

According to Karl Weick who has studied NASA in depth, viewing something as you almost failed rather than barely succeeded can be a great reminder that the system is all too capable of big mistakes. “In general, it just breeds the kind of wariness, a kind of attentiveness.” He goes on to say that “complacence is what you’re worried about”. Maybe it is all semantics, never the less; Weick says there’s a fine line to walk between a proud culture and a prideful one, between celebrating a healthy history of successes and resting on your laurels. “Delusions of a dream company” is what Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of Why Smart Executives Fail, calls it. That honest pride starts going toward self-confidence, overconfidence, complacency, and arrogance.

You may have heard that NASA has delayed the launch of the next shuttle because they realized that ice can cause as much damage as the foam caused. According to James D. Wetherbee the former commander and critic of NASA this is a “healthy change for the better in culture” I should hope so after blowing up two shuttles and losing 14 people! Don’t get me wrong I love using my taxpayer dollars (yes I still pay US taxes) for space exploration, and after all as long as that goes on, my brother has a job. Also in this case the money is being spent on real science, unlike when NASA spent ridiculous sums developing a ball point pen that can write in zero gravity – the Russians just use a pencil. Nope, I don’t mind my money being spent on science. What I mind, what really chaps my ass, is dumb leadership.

The Columbia disaster highlights the ultimate price of poor leadership and organizations not communicating internally. Getting people in an organization to communicate is tricky business. In some cases the opportunities are not there, and in other cases people only trust those that they know, which has obvious limitations. Creating opportunities for people to work together creates social networks that can develop the kind of trust that enables people to communicate information in a way that gains value from the exchange. Establishment of networks is good, but they will not work if leaders don’t let them.

Leaders must listen on all levels and embrace what is unconventional. If they shape cultures that are open to possibility and failure they will learn how to combat the problems that lay ahead. They need to imagine the unimaginable. I read a story in the February 2005 edition of Fast Company about a guy named Elon Musk. Musk is a dotcom zillionaire at  30 years of age, he has taken his money and is using it to fund a new company called Space Exploration Technologies (Space X), they plan to take on NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the rest of the big rocket makers and with Musk’s leadership and their companies attitude they just might do it.

There are no R&D labs at SpaceX, no PhDs and no government subsidies. Space X is a place where innovation is a state of mind. It’s about process. Even though they don’t have the training or business connections they do have an entrepreneurial culture that dreams big. Space X plans to derive its success from small improvements done on the cheap. Since he has funded the company with his own money, Musk has challenged his employees to do more with less. The company borrows parts and buys others on e bay. They find inspiration in odd places such as making fuel tanks out of milk truck – which didn’t work but they gave it a go. Rather than toiling away for years on something till it is perfect, Space X has a commitment to fast prototyping and testing.  They build as quickly as possible and then they “test the crap out of it”. The people that work at Space X have been cherry-picked from other companies that they were bored working at with the draw at Space X being they have freedom to do their job. No all day meetings, no waiting for months to get parts they requested or wading through bureaucracy. They just build rockets.

Reading all of this you cannot help but wonder where we fall in the whole mix. Do we have “delusions of a dream company” are we overconfident, complacent, arrogant, or are we more like Space X? If we’re not can we be? Unfortunately, if we are not what we want to be, the scientifically studied odds of us changing are nine to one. This taken from studies of people who are given the choice of changing or dieing, i.e. they had a life or death situation that required change. Face it; people don’t like to change, especially the way they act.  Sadly, changing behaviours is the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world says John Kotter from HarvardBusinessSchool. The CEO’s who are supposed to be the leaders of change are often the most resistant, and as the change or die studies shows, crisis is not a motivator. So what is, how can you be the one in ten? Kotter believes it is by talking to people about their feelings and appealing to their emotional side. This can be done, Louis Gerstner turned IBM around in the 90’s and he did so by making powerful emotional appeals to “shake them out of their depressed stupor, remind them of who they were – you’re IBM damn it!” Not saying that we are like NASA, but if we did want to change we could.  AFTER ALL WERE GEYER DAMN IT.

 

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