Ambiguous Threats

The explosion of the Columbia space shuttle can still teach lessons on leadership

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School leads a case-based workshop for the HMS community on leadership in the face of ambiguous risk.
Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Image: Aaron Washington for HMS

Sometimes, even organizations made up of the most talented and brightest people can stumble.

That was the case with the catastrophic failure of the heat-shielding systems on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which cost the lives of all seven astronauts aboard when the vehicle exploded.

Understanding the reasons for the failure, however, can provide valuable insights for organizations that are tasked with managing unexpected “ambiguous risks.”

Get more HMS news here

To help apply lessons learned from the shuttle system failure to leadership decision making at Harvard Medical School, Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy and other books, articles, papers and case studies, took a capacity crowd of HMS leadership, faculty and staff on what she described as a field trip to NASA.

At a June 21 event sponsored by the HMS Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership, Edmondson used the HBS case-based learning approach to teach about leadership and failures in management, inviting participants to analyze facts and historical data, and then play the roles of members of the NASA management and engineering teams responsible for the Columbia’s fateful final mission.

Much of the discussion revolved around the question of what went so wrong at NASA that the organization that successfully put the first human on the moon missed more than a decade’s accumulated evidence of the risk of foam strikes to the shuttle’s crucial thermal shielding.

It wasn’t because they’re not smart, Edmondson said, “They really are rocket scientists.”

Working together and discussing the perspectives of the NASA personnel whose roles they were playing, filtered through their own experiences, workshop participants made observations about the factors that led to the disaster.

Edmondson noted that the observations fit into three broad categories: cognition, including the language used to describe the shuttle program as safe, reliable and routine; organizational context, including the structure of meetings and the physical spaces where different team members sat in relation to one another and to leaders with decision-making power; and group dynamics, including interpersonal relations, and whether there were feelings of psychological safety for team members with dissenting views.

In talking about the language component, Edmondson noted that words people use often shape the way we think, which may have played into attitudes about the doomed mission. She noted that “foam” is not necessarily a scary word, and that a “shuttle” can be seen as an utterly predictable, even boring, mode of transportation, when in fact the Columbia foam proved extremely dangerous and the shuttle missions were anything but routine.

Other discussions revolved around whether the foam strike seconds into the shuttle launch was appropriately perceived as a danger to the safety of the mission, or just a commonplace maintenance issue that could be dealt with during preparations for the next scheduled shuttle mission.

The HMS workshop group seemed to conclude that, taken together, the cognitive, organizational and interpersonal context in which the NASA team was working probably reinforced a natural tendency to downplay the potential danger of an ambiguous threat—something that might or might not cause serious harm, as opposed to an obvious, immediate risk.

Facing an ambiguous threat is a "leadership moment of truth," Edmondson said.

“When the hairs on the back of your neck go up, when the amygdala gets triggered, stop and think,” she said, adding that it’s crucial at these junctures to gather input from as many perspectives as possible. This means that leadership needs to create opportunities for all parties to speak, and to seek different points of view.

“We're predisposed to a confirmatory response,” Edmondson said. “It's natural, it makes us feel better. An ‘unnatural’ response is code for ‘leadership is needed.’”

A key theme that emerged from the workshop was the importance of organizational leadership that encourages participation from team members who have diverse points of view, even—or especially—when that means potentially bad news.

Edmondson’s message was heard at the top levels of HMS leadership. She spoke at the invitation of one of the class participants, HMS Dean George Q. Daley, Edmondson’s husband. Daley told workshop participants that being part of the workshop gave him a chance to think more about the challenges of leading a learning organization.

“Thank you for allowing me to be a student,” Daley said. “I am still learning and I very much hope that this episode made it clear to all of you that you can be my teachers as well.”