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The Challenger Syndrome

Character faults are common enough as we all know, but the higher the position of the person, the more serious are the consequences. We’ll look at three major events, or failures which exemplify something I’ll refer to as the Challenger Syndrome.

Most of us remember the tragic explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle, and that it happened shortly after launch. After numerous commissions, and reports it seems that they couldn’t quite nail down the exact managerial cause/blame of the failure. The single most important thing to look at is a group of engineers who knew that launching in cold weather was EXTREMELY risky. However, their concerns were thwarted by a change in policy which required them to PROVE that their concerns were legitimate: problem was that there was no way that proof could be accomplished. Their only recourse would have been to go public and risk their jobs and careers. They chose not to do that, because NO ONE could be dead certain in this situation that there would be a failure. I kind of wonder, had anyone ask them if they would be willing to be in that shuttle, what they might have said? The upshot here is that NASA management put other considerations ahead of safety and success. So management effectively IGNORED the input of those who knew the magnitude of the risk involved.

In 1979 the Hood Canal floating bridge (7,900 ft. long and very expensive) was destroyed by a storm where winds of up to 120 mph swept down the canal in perfect alignment with the canal. So what happened? During the design phase of the bridge, one engineer submitted a memo objecting to the design in that it was assumed that the bridge would only have to withstand winds of 70 to 80 mph, but there was in historical records the FACT that winds in excess of 100 mph had occurred in the past.. Obviously, his memo was ignored by management, and the bridge was destroyed. Once again, a very knowledgeable engineer was sidelined, and a storm ruined a large section of the bridge.

Our third example is a little different, but the attitude is more pronounced. The jet powered flying wing built Northrup aviation crashed in 1948 killing all crew members a destroying the plane and the entire project. The plane was of innovative design and could carry an amazing amount of weight/bombs. So to keep this concise, Northrup engineers gave very specific instructions to the test pilots that they were NOT to do certain maneuvers which cause the plane to pull too many G’s. All indications were that the pilot in charge Maj. Edwards did precisely what he was told not to do. The plane suffered major structural failure and crashed. So one wonders: why didn’t he believe the engineers?

So just what are to learn from all of this? Each of us has our own Challenger Syndrome events from time to time. For instance, a co-worker decided that he wanted a piece of the action and decided to buy a house AT THE TOP OF THE MARKET in 2007. He knew that I was aware of the extreme risk of the high housing prices, but seeing only $$$, he wouldn’t even talk to me about his plans. He poured everything that he had into that purchase, and needless to say he ended up loosing it all. Having an advanced degree in economics, it was crystal clear to me that his actions were going to end in financial catastrophe, and so it happened. Being ‘right’ in this case did not give me any joy or satisfaction.

So I’ll end by saying: why don’t we listen to informed opinion?


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