Too Little Team Conflict Can Lead to Disaster

Last Updated Jan 14, 2008 1:49 AM EST

We remember sitting in a sixth-grade classroom on January 28, 1986, watching the catastrophic events of the clear, crisp morning near Cape Canaveral, Florida unfold on a large television screen. What many saw and remember as the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, barely on its way to the Earth's orbit, was actually a deflagration, or disintegration, caused by a damaged solid rocket booster becoming compromised by a joint weakened by a eroded and brittle rubber o-ring seal.

After years of preparations for the launch, and three delays due to weather conditions, the launch went ahead in near-freezing temperatures, despite the fact that engineers at solid-rocket-booster-maker Morton Thiokol had grave reservations about the ability of the o-rings to hold up in cold weather and high-pressure situations.

So where did the planning and precautions fall short? Shortly after the disaster, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission to investigate the causes behind the disaster and how they could be prevented in the future. The commission, led by former Secretary of State William Rogers and notably including Nobel Laureate physicist and notorious agitator Richard Feynman, came to these conclusions:

1. There was not an adequate process in place to bring attention to safety concerns and make sure they were addressed.
2. Certain constraints on launch were waived without being considered at all levels of NASA.
3. Management at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center tended to try to solve potentially serious problems internally rather than communicate them to the rest of NASA.
4. Morton Thiokol management eventually laid aside the concerns of its engineers to try to please its large client.

At the heart of the Challenger disaster was an unhealthy insistence on avoiding conflict.

Engineers at Morton Thiokol had raised concerns about the o-rings for years up until the day before the launch when the threat of cold weather caused even more consternation, but a poorly organized system for raising these concerns, a reluctance to upset such a big client with more delays, and pressure from the client kept discussion of the problem far from the people at NASA who would make the crucial decision to launch.

As commission member Richard Feynman said when presenting his personal findings on the Challenger disaster, NASA managers "exaggerated the reliability of the space shuttle to the point of fantasy."

Effective teams need to be comfortable with the idea of conflict and assured enough to be able to bring bad and inconvenient news to upper management, other teams and even a demanding client. The expertise of team members should be given more weight than stubborn insistence on sticking to timelines or client demands.

The most important innovations come about through clear and deliberate contingency planning, an environment that allows for open airing of concerns to all interested parties, and a faith that either good or bad news will be met with trust and confidence. Especially when the stakes are extremely high, a significant breakdown in any of these areas can be disastrous.