Legacy Blog

When changing the culture can lead to disaster

I’m reading Start-up Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. There is a passages that is worth to be cited, because it summarizes the cultural change that occurs in any company moving from the startup phase to a more complex organization. The authors mention an HBS study (The Recovery Window – pdf), which analyzes two different crisis with two very different outcomes: the Apollo 13 rescue and the Columbia disaster.

The Apollo 13 crisis occurred on April 15, 1970, when the spaceship ha traveled three-fourths of the way to the moon […] The flight director, Gene Kranz, was in charge of managing the mission – and the crisis – from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He was immediately presented with rapid worsening readouts […] After consulting several NASA teams, Kranz told the austranauts to move into the smaller lunar excursion module, wich was designed to detach from Apollo for short subtrips in space. The excursion module had its own small supply of oxygen and electricity. Kranz later recalled that he had to figure out a way «stretch previous resources, barely enough for two men for two days, to support three men for four days».
Kranz then directed a group of teams in Houston to lock themselves in a room until they could diagnose the oxygen problem and come up with ways to get the astronauts back into Apollo and then home. This was not the first time these team had met. Kranz had assembled them months in advance, in myriad configurations, and practice drills each day had gotten them used to responding to randome emergencies of all shapes and sizes. He was obsessed with maximizing interaction not only within teams but between teams and NASA’s outside contractors […] Kranz did not want there to be any lack of familiarity between team members who one day might have to deal with a crisis together.
Three days into the crisis, Kranz and his team had managed to figure out creative ways to get Apollo back to earth while consuming a fraction of the power that would typically be needed.

Fast forward to February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded into pieces as it reentered the earth’s atmophere.

We now know that a piece of insulating foam – weighing 1.67 pounds – had broken off the external fuel tank during take off. The foam struck the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing, making a hole that would later allow superheated gases to rip through the wing’s interior.
There were over two weeks of flight time between takeoff – when the foam had first struck the wing – and the explosion. Could something have been done during this window to repair Columbia? […]
As [a handful of midlevel NASA engineers] watched on video monitors during a post launch review sessione, these engineers saw the foam dislodge. The immediately notified NASA’s managers. But they were told that the foam “issue” was nothing new – foam dislodgements had damaged shuttle in previous launches and there had never been an accident. It was just a maintenance problem. Onward.
The engineers tried to push back. This broken piece of foam was the “the largest ever”, they said […] Unfortunately, the engineers were overruled again. […]
The study’s authors explained that organizations were structured under one of two models: a standardized model, where routine and systems govern everything, including strict compliance with timelines and budgets, or an experimental model, where every day, every exercise, and every piece of new information is evaluated and debated in a culture that resembles an R&D laboratory.
During the Columbia era, NASA’s culture was one of adherence to routines and standards. […]
NASA’s transformation from the Apollo culture of exploration to Columbia culture of rigid standardization began in the 1970s, when the space agency requested congressional funding for the new shuttle program. The shuttle was promoted as a reusable spacecraft that would dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. President Nixon said that at the time the program would «revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it».
But as the HBS professors point out, «space travel, much like technological innovation, is a foundamentally experimental endeavour and should be managed that way. Each new flight should be an important test and source of data, rather than a routine application of past practices.»

In other words, even when you think you are an established corporation, you need to think as a startup 🙂