What We Can Learn from the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

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Challenger Space Shuttle 1

It was 1986. It was a cold January morning at Cape Canaveral.

Engineers had been frantically preparing for the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. On board the space shuttle were 7 crew members.

Just as in all previous launches, safety checks had to be done prior to the launch of the mission to ensure the space shuttle was perfectly safe before launching.

As part of the checks, Engineers working on the space shuttle had to sign-off a declaration that the space shuttle was safe to proceed. However, 4 Engineers had refused to sign-off on the declaration forms that morning.

At the height of the Cold War, the political pressure for this mission to proceed was huge. A lot were at stake. This mission had already been delayed several times and it would have been a huge political embarrassment to the United States Government if this mission did not take off again this time.

And because the political pressure was overwhelming, the Director overseeing the Engineers decided to ignore the concerns of those Engineers who refused to sign-off on the safety forms. Instead he signed-off on the safety forms for the launch to proceed.

We all know what happened to that ill-fated space shuttle that day. The space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all 7 crew members. The space craft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean in a huge fireball, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Watch the live video footage here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSTrmJtHLFU

The reason for the disaster?

The O-Ring seal in its right rocket booster failed at lift-off. The failure of the O-Ring caused pressurised burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to escape and affected the external fuel tank.

The O-Rings were qualified only to 4˚C (40˚F). The temperature that cold January morning was -7˚C (4˚F).

So what lessons can we draw from the 1986 Challenger disaster?

The Challenger disaster has since been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics.

Workplace ethics has become a critical competency in most organisations today. However cases where Bosses override the concerns of reporting team members still happen every day in the corporate world.

As a leader, do you have a habit of dismissing feedback and comments from your team members? Do you always insist on your own ways? Do you always think you know best?

If you are a boss or a manager of a team of experts or highly competent individuals, it usually pays to listen to the opinions and concerns of your direct reports.

The reason is very simply: Your direct reports have the expert practical domain knowledge that you may not have.

In our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment today, it is impossible for any one individual to have all the answers, and it is impossible for any one individual to see all the different options and possibilities.

It is important to listen to their views, opinions and concerns and not dismiss their concerns prematurely. You need to solicit their feedback and expert opinions before you make any major changes or critical decisions.

Avoid becoming the next Challenger.

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July 7, 2015

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