Trylon Communications  - November 2003

"Better Not Say Anything..."

The words above can devastate a business – or as in the case of the Columbia shuttle, set off a chain of events that lead to disaster - literally.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly chronicles the doomed flight of the Columbia and analyzes the mistakes and communications problems that led to the deaths of the astronauts on board.

Citing an insular structure that repressed clear communication, a lack of coherent vision in the program, and above all an overly upbeat “rose-colored” view of events that precluded a timely investigation into the matter while lives could still be saved, the article points out communication flaws that can plague any corporation or business.

While engineers had serious doubts about what damage had occurred when a piece of foam struck the shuttle during lift-off, their requests for high-resolution images of the affected area were denied. This was due in part to a bureaucracy that sent their messages to the wrong people.

Another communication failing occurred when these requests were denied because the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. In fact, a direct request for imagery was sent by the engineers to the Department of Defense, but was terminated by a mission manager who did not discuss the request with the engineering team. This determination included an apology from NASA to the DOD for not making the request through “proper channels.”

Another reason the request was denied, according to the article, was that the management team did not hear a strident call of alarm. Instead, it heard subtle nuances that there may be damage, that there was not enough information to assess possible damage, and that most likely the impact was of little significance. The occurrence of numerous similar incidents on past flights added to the ennui.

Another contributing factor was NASA’s focus on organizational and bureaucratic concerns vs. the actual flight operation. With each member of the management team concerned about the flight status and “getting the job done,” the managers were impelled to ignore the foam strikes and proceed with the mission at full speed.

In fact, the engineers most worried about the shuttle were actually afraid to voice their opinions directly to their managers, as they worried about being ridiculed and having their careers threatened. The engineers did not even know for a fact that the pictures they had requested had not been taken, thinking they may have just been out of the loop.

The lack of concern felt by managers of the program was best expressed in an email sent to the shuttle pilots. It informed the pilots that if reporters questioned them about the foam strike, they should respond that this was a natural occurrence with no need for alarm.

All in all, this can be viewed as an excellent example of how NOT to handle bad news. Glossing over problems, repressing internal communication and not listening to your colleagues and employees can have terrible consequences.