Lessons from Challenger, Build Hope and Be Accountable

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Richard Feynman, renowned physicist, was asked in 1986 to help understand what happened in the Challenger disaster. He not only gave a famous testimony to Congress describing the O-ring failure that led to the catastrophe, he also led a more quiet inquiry conducting interviews of the NASA engineers and leaders. He devoted the latter half of his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? to his experience working on the Rogers Commission. One of his sober conclusions was that the engineers on the ground building the componentry had a much different perspective than than the leaders in the organization. He found that, while the engineers estimated a catastrophic failure upon launch of only 1 in 100, the management’s estimate was closer to 1 in 100,000 This disconnect is linked to what I wrote about in a previous post about the power-poisoning effect Stanford professor Bob Sutton found through his research.

Sometimes in our grandiose vision for change and mission we can lose sight of the details that matter so dearly in execution. Do this:

  • If you’re on the project, speak the truth.  Regularly.   Although unfortunately it is true leaders like only good news, by concealing ugly truths you are only sabotaging your own efforts.
  • If you’re leading the charge, ask and take time to understand the details. A disconnected leader isn’t leading – they are pontificating without honest accountability. Accountability is about understanding the goals, giving honest responsibility and getting out of the way of individual efforts without compromising results.

Build hope and vision, yet remain accountable, because ultimately, if you own the solution or project, see it through to success.