What went wrong with the Hubble Space Telescope (and what managers can learn from it)

NASA's former director of astrophysics, Charlie Pellerin, has learned a thing about leadership and project failure

Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

Charles 'Charlie' Pellerin.

Pellerin says it's because people make a fundamental error when addressing questions of failure and leadership: "That this stuff is about individual abilities."

As with Challenger and Hubble, they were good technical people at KAL. "They kept testing the pilots… they're as good as pilots any place." Finally Boeing subsidiary Alteon put observers in the cockpits of KAL jets to find out what was happening. What they discovered, Pellerin says, was that the social context in which pilots were operating was having an impact on safety.

"There's only two people sitting there [in the cockpit]. The captain starts to make small mistakes and [because of the airline's internal hierarchy] the first officer is embarrassed to correct him, so he doesn't say anything cause it's considered impolite. Most of the time it doesn't matter. But as this goes on and on, the first officers just want to tune out. So they're reading magazines while the plane's flying and the captain is all by himself screwing things up. And you know, modern jets are designed to be flown by two people working as a team… so they figured out the problem fixed it and the safety record immediately went back to international standards."

This question of the emphasis on individual abilities versus the context in which individuals and teams operate is something that has consumed Pellerin's energies in his time since leaving NASA, and is the foundation of the training system used by the company he founded, 4-D Systems.

"There's a bunch of research I've come across in this work, where people say that the social context is a 78-80 per cent determinant of performance; individual abilities are 10 per cent. So why do we make this mistake? Because we spend all of these years in higher education being trained that it's about individual abilities."

Thanks to happenstance (three CEOS of Fortune 500 companies heard a talk by one of his students), Pellerin ended up converting the course he was teaching into a leadership workshop for corporations.

His starting point, he says, was Vaughan's assertions that the destruction of Challenger was a product of "invisible forces and therefore unmeasurable and therefore unmanageable". Unmeasurable and unmanageable didn't sit well with Pellerin. He studied the question, and, he says, "a voice comes to my head from undergraduate days that said the right coordinate system can turn an impossible problem into two really hard problems." He devised a matrix system used in 4-D training that he says looks at the kind of behaviours and needs that can help strengthen teams. "If I meet people's needs, we're going to be improving performance," he says. The needs include things like "Mutual respect, enjoyable work", "Authentic, aligned, efficient action" while behaviours cover such points as "Express authentic appreciation" and "Appropriately include others".

His training focuses on questions of the social context in which a team operates, rather than just looking at a team as a group of atomised individuals. In a twist, Pellerin found himself working for NASA again on a contract to deliver his training.

"I went and met one day with the guy who worries about team development and risk management at NASA and I showed him what I got… So they give me a small contract and I use all the money up. They give me a contract that I thought would be big enough for my whole life. This thing gets so popular in NASA of all places! Technical people don't usually gravitate to this kind of thing. If you want to really scare a technical person, put deep fear into them, just say something 'touchy feely' and watch while they run.

"So what I've done is I've taken social constructs and I've described them in metaphors that they understand through technical analogies. So how do I get them to understand the social forces? I tell them about Challenger. I talk about Hubble."

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @techworld_au

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