In this chapter James Surowiecki describes the events that led to the Columbia shuttle disaster and explains the factors that contributed to this catastrophe. First of all, the author mentions that during the launch of Columbia a large piece of foam was broken off and smashed into the wing of the shuttle.
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The thing is that that the members of the Mission Management Team (MMT) knew about this event, but they convinced themselves that it did not pose a significant threat to the crew. More importantly, the findings of the Debris Assessment Team (DAS) were not properly investigated. So, poor decision-making within the NASA led to the death of seven astronauts. In his book, James Surowiecki analyzes organizational factors that can explain unsatisfactory performance of the MMT team.
First of all, people, who took part in this project, were extremely firm in their conviction that there had been no defects with Columbia. This is one of the reasons they rejected the request to take photographs of the shuttle in order to estimate the impact of the foam on the shuttle.
The problem is that they did not know much about the possible quality of these images. This is why they lacked evidence when analyzing the situation and evaluating risks. James Surowiecki believes that it is a form of confirmation bias when people choose to see that they want to see. Moreover, such situations exemplify such a phenomenon as groupthink. It occurs when separate individuals do not want to contradict the opinions of their superiors.
Furthermore, James Surowiecki notes that when the member of the MMT team realized the extent of the threat, they came to the conclusion that nothing could have been done. Yet, after the investigation, it became clear that there could be at least two ways of rescuing the Columbia crew. These examples demonstrate that poor decision-making can have significant implications for people’s lives.
Apart from that, James Surowiecki argues that such organizational behavior can in part be explained by the culture of the NASA. In the past, this organization recruited people who had worked in various industries. It was more likely that they could have different views on the same question or problem.
Yet, nowadays, the employees come to the NASA mostly from graduate schools. Very often they may not be experienced in such discussions. In many cases, the employees may be reluctant to voice their disagreement with those people, who occupy a higher position in the workplace hierarchy.
Additionally, the writer attempts to explain the reasons why group discussions in organizations may not be very productive. In his opinion, some members of the team can dominate others, while the opinions of more reserved people can be overlooked. James Surowiecki refers to empirical studies demonstrating that teams are more likely to take better decisions than separate individuals, if team members can openly exchange ideas. The task of a leader is to ensure that communication within a group is not hindered in any way.
James Surowiecki emphasizes the necessity of looking at the same question or problem from different angles. More importantly, people should express these different views on during discussions or meetings. Only, in this way, organizations can avoid tragedies like the collapse of Columbia. The issues discussed by the author are relevant to many organizations that consist of many divisions or discussions.