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
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
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.
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.