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If Only They Would Have Known How...

by Deborah Rinner, Vice President, Chief Learning Officer, Tero International


In Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986, the Space shuttle Challenger broke apart and disintegrated minutes after take-off. A much publicized launch, this shuttle carried not only five astronauts but two payload specialists, one a teacher named Christa McCauliffe. Christa had won the seat to be the first teacher in space over 11,000 applicants. What is little known to most about this disaster is that the cause of it was preventable, and actually roots back to communication the day before the flight.

Bob Ebeling, who died at 89 last week was one of the engineers who the New York Times obituary stated 'knew what the rest of the world did not'. Bob predicted the fate of the Challenger the day before the launch. As an engineer for Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the rubber O rings designed to seal joints between the booster rocket segments, Bob knew these rings didn't perform well in cold weather. On the day of the disaster, Florida was suffering a cold snap which would make lift off temperatures thirty degrees lower than any prior test launch. The O Rings were not created to function in such low temperatures, and Bob told his daughter on the way to watch the launch at his company headquarters that the Challenger was going to blow up due to the cold, and everyone was going to die. Which is precisely what happened.

The afternoon and evening prior to the launch, knowing the cold temperatures would be even colder overnight, Bob alerted his managers, and the engineers at Thiokol were quickly on the phone with NASA from their headquarters in Utah, trying to influence the decision to postpone the launch. They were not successful, and the outcome due to weather and the function of the rings played out as Bob had predicted and the Thiokol management had warned. Why are we relating this story? The Rogers Commission found NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes key contributing factors to the accident. You have to wonder if this situation would have been different if the decision could have been better influenced through the communications on those conference calls. You also wonder if the organizational culture and decision making processes could have benefitted from some skills around collaboration to achieve the best possible outcomes. Or if the long term affects were sufficiently considered, not just the short term decision to launch or not launch on that given day.

How many decisions, perhaps not as monumental as this one, but extremely important, are made every day in organizations? How many are poorly communicated or lack the ability to influence and result in less than desirable outcomes? How many times is only one party willing to work collaboratively? How often are our decisions only considering short term results at the expense of long term consequences? There are many reasons the story of the Challenger is a tragic one. The United States lost seven high performing individuals. Their families suffered irreparable loss of their loved ones. The U.S. Space program and NASA were set back, and some will say the shuttle program never fully recovered from the event.

Bob, who was interviewed by NPR last January, on the thirty-year anniversary of the disaster and two months prior to the end of his life, said he had been under terrible stress for all the years after it happened. He had bad dreams and headaches and felt like a "loser" that he wasn't able to prevent this from happening. Though he was a skilled engineer who graduated from California Polytechnic University, he left the profession of engineering shortly after the Challenger disaster. When others who held more responsibility than Bob heard the NPR interview, they reached out to him to reassure him he was not at fault. "He was not a loser, he did do something" said Mr. Allan McDonald, Bob's supervisor at the time. "If he hadn't called me we never would have had the opportunity to try to avert the disaster" McDonald stated. Bob was said to have appreciated these comments,so he did put his feeling of responsibility to rest before he was put to rest, but this event had affected him until the very end of his life.

What can we learn from this account? Of all the skills we possess as humans, our ability to communicate in ways that influence outcomes for everyone's best interest is one of the most significant. Organizational decision-making that requires the skills of collaborative communication, and influencing even if we are not the one in authority, are best learned, practiced, and established before we are faced with a critical situation. "At least we had the opportunity to try to stop it," McDonald was quoted as saying. If only they would have known how.


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