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Success Can Be Dangerous

NASA was created in 1958 as America’s response to Russia sending Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 into orbit in 1957. Pretty quickly, NASA caught up to then far outran the capabilities of all other organizations in space exploration.

In the 1960’s, NASA accomplished absolutely amazing things which included the Apollo missions putting people on the moon six times. The stunning rescue of Apollo 13 was largely a leadership demonstration. The list of firsts is incredible: in 1972, going far beyond the moon with the flight to Jupiter; building and successfully placing in space the Space Telescope; in the 1980’s, creating and almost routinely flying the reusable spacecraft called Space Shuttles; and on and on it goes.

Now comes a wonderful book by former NASA flight director, Paul Sean Hill, to provide a warning and some lessons about leadership. The warning? He states that “we knew how good we were. We were probably one of the most respected organizations and group of leaders anywhere in the world.” “We thought we didn’t have to take advice from other people.”

We have seen this mental mindset at work frequently in business organizations. Often, the very characteristics that help someone reach the top of the company are exactly the characteristics that lead to his or her fall. Brilliant thinking, confidently taking decisions, intense hard work are building blocks of executive success. Yet Steve Jobs was fired for demonstrating those characteristics. Jeff Immelt did not have the root meanness of Steve Jobs, but his remarkable rise under Jack Welch turned into a nightmare of lost value for stockholders over the past 17 years. His successor is changing almost every facet of the business to try and recover this once great company.

Changing How You See Yourself

Paul Sean Hill tells us that the biggest challenge facing NASA was not a technical challenge; it was “getting leaders to change how they saw themselves.” This desired change did not happen overnight with the arrival of some charismatic leader at the top. The catalyst for change seemed to come from ending the isolation mindset, which he says led to a number of the disasters that plagued NASA for a while. Top leaders went into other organizations and personally observed how alternative managerial systems operated and how the people were led to make them successful.

Decision making had to change; there was dramatic confirmation bias at work (see Thinking Traps – Part 1) NASA had to create new thinking habits that included vetting decisions with groups of competent people who were encouraged to speak up, not discouraged by “group think” or hierarchical pressure. People were encouraged to seek disconfirming information.

The kind of fear injected by senior leaders who Hill described in an anecdote as saying, “What are you telling me this for? (describing a situation that required more time and work.) If you can’t get this done, let me know and I will replace you with someone who can.” As Hill notes, “Do you think a senior manager was ever going to be willing to bring up anything he needed help with again?”

Train the way you fly. Fly the way you train

We strongly support this Mission Control mantra. We have helped organizations conduct their after-action reviews – of unsuccessful projects AND of successful projects. People need to fully understand what makes things work well as well as what doesn’t.

We help managers figure out how to be leaders, to honor the courage it takes to ask the tough questions and work through the unpleasant decisions that sometimes have to be made.

Could your organization’s decision-making processes benefit from a careful and caring review? Would you benefit from having more managers understand the processes involved in making solid, defensible decisions?

Avoiding group-think and confirmation bias are only a couple of the pieces

of the puzzle with which we can help.

Give us a call at 704-489-8111.

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