Dan Seewald

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30 Years Later: The End of Innocence and a Lesson for Future Innovators


January 28,1986 was an unusual Tuesday. My entire 6th grade was crammed into a single classroom while the Audio-Visual teacher wheeled in a television set. As we rejoiced at our good fortune at missing language arts class, my 6th grade teacher explained that we were going to witness history in the making. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who joined a crew of astronauts was on board the Space Shuttle Challenger, and would become the first regular civilian to be launched into space. The challenger launched and the room erupted with clapping and amazement. But 73 seconds after the cheering ended, the unthinkable happened. The space shuttle challenger exploded and plummeted to earth. All the astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, were lost. The room was in shock. My teacher wept and was frozen, unable to decide whether to continue watching the events unravel or turn it off and shield our class. I still remember that day clearly more than 30 years later.


Space exploration is inordinately complex. The engineering feats that are required to make space travel possible are near-incomprehensible to a non-Rocket Scientist like myself. It would be discovered much later that the disaster was the result of a catastrophic failure of the seals that were designed to prevent hot gases from escaping. But the greatest mistake that led to that fateful day had less to with a failure of engineering design, than it did with the innovation mindset at NASA. With a high-stakes, public relations campaign blazing the way for this launch, the NASA leadership team felt there was no room for any error. And therefore, when the director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project, who refused to sign-off on the project, pointed out that the freezing temperatures could affect the integrity of the seals, his admonition was duly ignored. Furthermore, NASA eschewed building in the technology that could have been used, such as location transponder, in the event that shuttle launch went less than perfect. While NASA should have of course planned for success, it was equally important that they built in an adaptive plan in case real life didn’t match the best laid plans.

Sadly, the Space Shuttle Challenger serves as a teachable lesson for future innovators. While the NASA engineers rightfully were optimistic in focusing on what must go right for the launch to be successful, they should have been equally vigilant at snuffing out and mitigating the risk. The team should have been thinking expansively about everything that could go wrong, assessing the degree of uncertainty and impact of those risks and then finally building creative solutions that could mitigate each of those risks.

Here are the three things that might have made a big difference for NASA and that you can apply to your next big project that you don’t want to see go up in flames.


Inventory your Project Assumptions

Begin by making a comprehensive list of all the assumptions that must hold true for your initiative to be successful. By bringing together a heterogeneous group of experts, as well as invested outsiders, you will find that you will produce a lengthy list of assumptions. It is critical that at this stage you withhold judgment and do not censure or exclude any assumptions. The next step invites the scrutiny that we held back on. But there is an art to this exercise, you want to select ONLY the assumptions that you believe will have a high degree of impact on the outcome. This is subjective but you can quickly sort them by asking yourself, and your team, “which of these assumptions will keep me up at night?” Finally, we are ready to score this subset of high impact assumption on a scale of 1 -5 on the basis of uncertainty. The most uncertain and highest impact are the hidden killers that we must further examine and better prepare for.


Plan for Failure

Knowing your project killing assumptions is important. But it is even more important to understand WHY these project killing assumptions were identified. This is where you bring together a mixture of subject matter experts and everyday project team members to explore “Why this assumption might fail?” This may require additional research but can also be addressed if you have the relevant expertise present. At this stage, it is essential that you clearly characterize the reasons why the project might fail so that you can be prepared to try to clear this hurdle.


Prepare an Adaptive Plan

Once you know your project killing assumptions and the cardinal reasons why they might fail, you're ready to enter the creative problem solving mode. At this point, your team should begin by asking “How might we adapt if the project killing assumption does fail?” To put it another way, how could we retain the original intention, or essence, of the idea by pivoting some elements of the idea. By clearly attacking the reasons for failure and allowing ourselves to be an expansive frame of mind, we can begin to build a contingency that makes our original project concept more resilient. In the case of the Challenger, the team was moving so fast and trying to meet the public relations demands of airing the launch on scheduled television programming, they did not stop to sufficiently ask these questions which may have prevented them from sufficiently preparing for the unexpected.

There is no way to know for certain if this approach would have changed the outcome on that fateful day. That said, developing an adaptive plan would have unearthed and socialized the potential project killing risks and better prepared the engineering team to react when the worst scenario came true. As an innovator, using this approach will enable you to think about what might happen, before it happens, and allow you to make faster decisions if the worst possible outcome were to happen.

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