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Launching from Failure

By: :: Published: October 31, 2014

The world recently witnessed the Antares rocket shuttle lift off and, within a few seconds, explode and crash back into Virginia in a fiery blaze. Like many, we immediately likened the incident to the 1986 Challenger tragedy, and even questioned if history had just repeated itself. Did NASA not learn its lesson from almost 30 years ago?

It would have been easy to speculate how probably the same decision biases back then could have led to this disaster today. Given DSI’s experience in teaching about the Challenger case as it relates to leadership, our knee jerk reaction was to reinforce the lessons learned from that experience. However, one surprise that stood out from this recent incident was an interview with Jim Oberg, a NBC News space analyst and former NASA mission control operator, on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. So, instead of focusing on the past, we thought we’d focus on a great example of how to launch from failure. From his brief interview, Oberg surfaces four key behaviors we can all learn from when it comes to experiencing failure:

  1. Slow down to minimize biases
    Right from the start, Oberg emphasizes how the investigators are saying not to speculate yet on why or how this happened. Once we do, our mental models kick in and readily frame how we approach analyzing what happened. As he states in the clip, rushing to the answer is “not just premature, but it’s actually unwise to start formulating explanations [..] because it can really bias the investigation.

    By quickly jumping to conclusions or conjecture, we open ourselves to blind spots. We potentially could dismiss factors that contributed to the situation or simply see what we want to see. We seek data that confirms our hypothesis and potentially give certain information more weight than others. To prevent such bias from influencing our interpretation of data, we should slow down before offering answers and focus first on gathering the facts.

  1. Objectively collect all data
    As mentioned, one of the first things to do after a failure is to gather information. In the case of this launch, Oberg describes how everyone is currently in gather mode, recording what they saw to capture as much immediate information as possible. They even go so far as to ask individuals not to speak to each other. By taking these steps, NASA is minimizing bias as well as ensuring separate perspectives in the analysis.

    Often, we go about our post-project debriefs merely discussing what we felt went well and what did not. We quickly offer reasons and rationale why we failed or did not meet expectations. However, most of those conclusions are conjecture and based off what we think the causes were versus what actually produced the outcome. What we learn from this example is that to truly understand why failure occurred, and how best to learn from the experience, we need objective and as complete information as we can collect. 

  1. Don’t wait to learn
    This may sound counter to the first piece of advice, but waiting to interpret does not equate to waiting to learn. Oberg mentions that soon after the explosion, NASA started recording and gathering information immediately.

    Similarly, we should debrief right away after a project or initiative fails (or succeeds). Information and experiences are fresher, allowing for more objective perspectives as well as the opportunity to gather the most amount of data. Organizations and leaders can also apply any learning sooner to improve the next decision or help someone else to not repeat the same mistake. When it comes to failure, it doesn’t benefit to hold off on learning from it.

  1. Plan for failure
    Despite the explosion, the International Space Station faces no immediate danger of a lack of supplies due to multiple options being available. The NASA system at Wallops Flight Facility won’t be able to send any supplies in the near future, but other nations and systems will be able to transport the supplies over the next few months. As Oberg states, “Having multiple access and multiple nations […] makes for the kind of robustness that this kind of project, this kind of hazardous endeavor really needs.”

    Even though we don’t want to fail, we know the future is too unpredictable to avoid failure completely. To mitigate that risk, organizations need to account for scenarios if failure in fact occurs. A major part of this involves having multiple options, which allows for flexibility and shifts. 

Of course, no organization or person endeavors to fail. However, some situations are out of our control; failure is bound to happen. We can’t predict if an initiative will succeed or fail. However we can increase the chances of success through a disciplined decision-making process. As it relates to this article, we can also choose how we fail through a disciplined learning process as a strategic leader. An organization that doesn’t embrace failure won’t be able to learn from it and adapt to our volatile and dynamic future environment. Learning is a crucial element for success. As Jack Welch says, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

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