Dirt Under the Carpet!

Ministhy Dileep | October 19,2013 03:12 pm IST

The smiling face of the NASA Chairperson who ran the Shuttle management meetings, stared at me from the papers*. And I read the transcripts of her meetings in shock and horror.

She had apparently conducted a meeting over the critical piece of foam insulation discussion in the manner of a Hitler who brooked no opposition. She hinted that, "We have seen pieces of this size before, haven't we?" "A non-issue?" And the group said, "Right, right." **


The reader could only visualize her bulldozing and hinting her way to sweeping the dust under the covers. And this top manager responsible for the mission management, later tearfully proclaimed what a NASA engineer called "Ignorance as her defense". "I don't have the engineering expertise. Nor do I have the tools to do that kind of analysis." ***


Well, human beings and human errors of bias, prejudice and judgment. Add unplaced optimism and a predilection to the famed theory of "Group think" and you have a disaster in hand. Precisely the factors, which explained the Challenger disaster and the Bay of Pigs crises. And we spent hours discussing these case studies and how to avoid such errors in B-Schools.


In 1977, Janis and Mann**** put forward the idea of "GROUP THINK". They highlighted eight symptoms of this phenomenon. Which Ms.Linda Ham & Co. would have done good to pursue before pleading helpless. Faced with damning meetings excerpts, that seem like M/s Janis and Mann scripted their book watching those.


For example, watch this statement:


"... Nobody on the team believed that the foam could hurt the orbiter."


(Earlier this month when they simulated the foam collapse, it blasted a hole 16 inches across*****) Which takes us back to Group Think.


Eight Main Symptoms of Group Think******:

• Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
• Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to group thinking.
• Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
• Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
• Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
• Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
• Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group's decision; silence is seen as consent.
• Mind guards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

And now check a few ways on how Group Think stands avoided:


Avoiding Group Think


The group should be made aware of the causes and consequences of group think.
The leader should be neutral when assigning a decision-making task to a group, initially withholding all preferences and expectations. This practice will be especially effective if the leader consistently encourages an atmosphere of open inquiry.
(The chairperson has in her first public statement said, "I was never alerted to the concerns by the engineers working the issue."...
... "The request for getting an image from other space agencies never came up again-not in the hallway, not in the mission management team.")
The leader should give high priority to airing objections and doubts, and be accepting of criticism.
("A NON-ISSUE, RIGHT?" In the crucial Jan 24 meeting Ms. Ham thus cut off an Engineering manager who was presenting doubts.)
Groups should always consider unpopular alternatives, assigning the role of Devil's Advocate to several strong members of the group.
Sometimes it is useful to divide the group into two separate deliberative bodies as feasibilities are evaluated.
Spend a sizable amount of time surveying all warning signals from rival group and organizations.
After reaching a preliminary consensus on a decision, all residual doubts should be expressed and the matter reconsidered.
Outside experts should be included in vital decision making.
(The top manager said she had, "Absolutely no reluctance to ask for outside assistance." But of course, no one ever asked openly since the decision was already made about the nonissue.)
The organization should routinely follow the administrative practice of establishing several independent decision-making groups to work on the same critical issue or policy.
("Something went wrong in our system, in our team, in our processes": The Entry Flight Director Leroy Cain.)

Ms.Linda Ham promises that, "I'm going to stay with NASA." So long as she keeps the carpet clean. Guess there are no shortages of brooms in NASA.


* The article is based on the report: "A portrait of communications breakdown at the space agency", New York Times, July 23, 2003 pg. A15.
** Excerpts from NASA meeting on shuttle-do.
*** Op.Cite: article.
**** Janis IL & Mann, L (1977: Group Think. (Decision-making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. New York: Free Press.)
***** Op. Cite. Article.
****** Op. Cite. Book. You can reach their website by typing "group think" in Google.


Ministhy S. is PG (PM&IR) from XLRI-Jamshedpur, and currently, an IAS officer working in the UP cadre. She has written five books - 'Unequal Equations', 'Learning with Tippy Tortoise: Tales for Kids', 'Happy Birthday: Poems for Kids' and a novel published by Dronequill Publishers, Bangalore....