Column: Deliver While You Continue To Develop

January 10, 2017

[Written by Dr. Cara Miller & Eric West]

The last several decades have seen remarkable achievements in information technology and networks. From finance to aerospace engineering, to artificial intelligence, and even networked education, we are reaching a point at which our technical capabilities are surpassing our capacities to reliably structure human resources to keep pace.

As a result, our ability to “engineer” our people systems and networks has fallen behind our ability to engineer our information systems and networks. The aerospace industry, historically hailed as one of our most innovative, underwent some of the earliest manifestations of this growing gap.

The case studies of the well-known Challenger [1986] and Columbia [2003] incidents at NASA are of particular interest in illuminating these phenomena. Investigations into each of them yielded the surprising discovery that the dysfunction had more to do with NASA’s people engineering inadequacies, than with their scientific engineering inadequacies.

In both cases, consultants were tasked with investigating what went wrong and how to address the dysfunction to prevent future failures. Essentially, their audit determined that there was an embedded organizational culture and leadership failure that allowed the accidents to occur, not purely mechanical failures as many had initially suggested.

West Miller TC Bermuda January 9 2017

Even though the incidents were 17 years apart, many of the same consultants were involved with the investigation of both incidents. Interestingly, even though the leaders that were responsible for the Challenger incident were no longer with NASA, the same organizational causes were cited with reference to the Challenger accident.

At the time of the Columbia accident, institutional practices that were in effect at the time of the Challenger accident, such as inadequate concern over deviations from expected performance, a silent safety program, and schedule pressure had returned to NASA. Sally Ride, who was on both the Rogers Commission Challenger Investigation and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, stated she was “surprised at how similar the cause factors were for both accidents.”

Specifically, investigators cited a NASA culture that “accepted mission success over engineering understanding, the stifling of differences of opinion, and the evolution of an informal chain of command.” Additionally, there did not seem to be contingency planning around a process to address the communication of anomalies occurring during or before a mission.

All of NASA’s scientifically reliable, technical and operational innovations were rendered fatally unreliable at the hands of the humans in charge of running both events. In the Challenger incident, it is now known that the engineers who installed the O-ring that failed at lift off had indeed reported it not acceptable for flight and lobbied NASA to abort the mission.

They were ultimately refused. In the Columbia incident, at least 8 departments notified the Mission Management Team [MMT] that something had come off of the shuttle but were denied further investigation. As it turns out, the reported piece that came off of the shuttle was ultimately the cause of the crash only a few days later upon reentry.

What happened?

Transcripts from the Columbia shuttle investigation revealed that NASA MMT overwhelmingly saw the the Space Shuttle Programs mission as “Operational,” whereas the Space Shuttle Program engineers saw the programs as “Developmental.” The engineers were trying to learn alongside associated departments by gathering data to improve the Columbia missions knowing that their current model was not perfected, it was “in development.”

The MMT were presumably more focused on data that fit existing categories of “mission critical” and disregarded reports that fell outside of those parameters. This “mindset” difference between the leadership tier and the staff level at NASA is more typical than not in organizations. The amount of technical data and reporting generated by the organization and its associated functions often eludes or overloads existing communication channels, and frequently exceeds the existing capacity for leadership to translate it for usefulness. The resulting organizational culture enjoys great technical and engineering innovations while it suffers from increasingly distorted methods of organizing in spite of them.

What to do

Your organization may not have quite as life-threatening, mission critical imperatives as NASA does. Even so, the mission critical imperatives relative to your functions are poised to be life-threatening to the health of your organizational culture. Eventually, your investment in human engineering and organizing will be the crucial factor that determines the safety, success and longevity of your product engineering and provision.

Taking an increasingly developmental stance on the operational functions of your organization affords you augmented opportunities to address the engineering gap. Devoting explicit time to working on, while also working in your organization, stands to improve your channels of communication, increase the usability of internal information reporting and measurement, decrease inconsistencies, shorten your recovery from incidents, and predict and avoid future anomalies.

Like NASA in the rapidly changing aerospace industry, we know that your business operations cannot cease and wait for your organization to develop the structures required to keep up. You must be able to deliver while you continue to develop. As developmental consultants, we support organizations who must simultaneously provide external business services while they build internal business structures.

At whatever level of the organization you find yourself, you might experiment with asking yourself and those around you, “How do we know whether our task is operational or developmental? Furthermore, what are the potential consequences or hazards of not attributing the proper distinction?”

- Dr Cara T. Miller is a executive leadership coach, organization developer, and change consultant to organizations across industries (finance, military, non-profit, higher education). She teaches and coaches teams in the fields of leadership, organizational change and adult development through the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Cara received a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in Organizational Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. Dr. Miller is a Partner at Inquiry Partners.

- Eric West is an organizational development consultant that focuses on organization wide transformation as it relates to process consultation, leadership development, culture, executive coaching, psychological assessment, and internal structures and processes. Eric received a Bachelor in Psychology from Harvard University and a Master from Columbia University in Organizational Psychology. Mr. West is a Partner at Inquiry Partners.

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