Can debate produce greater safety than rules? Isn't the iron-clad rule a surer safeguard against disaster? We tend to think of organisations like NASA as having more or less the same basic character despite the passage of years. But it's not necessarily so. All organisations accumulate rules over time, and when left unchecked, these rules can fundamentally alter the nature of any organisation.
When NASA faced two separate, well-known challenges, their culture at each stage was very different. In 1970, Apollo 13 was two days into its mission. While the astronauts on board hurtled towards the moon at 2,000 miles per hour, an explosion knocked out one of their oxygen tanks, leading Commander James Lovell to utter the now iconic statement, 'Houston, we have a problem.'
The ensuing creative scramble to get the astronauts safely home is the stuff of legend. Just about everything that could go wrong did. The creative trial and experimentation that went into rescuing the astronauts was formidable. New procedures were made up back on earth, then quickly tested in the simulator, then relayed to the astronauts 200,000 miles away, almost in real-time.
Yet through this process of creative trial and experimentation, of collaborative interdisciplinary debate, one by one the issues were resolved, and, ultimately, the crew was brought home safely.
... And here's why:
At this point in time, NASA's culture was ruled by imaginative debate. It was an exploratory culture, an experimenting culture, a culture based on learning and evolution, in which, every day, every new exercise and every new thing learnt was prodded and handed around like a toddler in a mommies' group.
Even though the mission essentially failed, NASA nevertheless classified it as a 'successful failure', because of the experience gained and lessons learnt while rescuing the crew.
Reliance on past success had become a substitute for true learning.
By contrast, at the time of the Columbia disaster of 2003, the culture of experimentation had given way to one of formalised rules, regimented procedures and rigid hierarchy. One could argue that NASA had stopped being a learning organisation. It had become a bureaucracy instead.
As Columbia re-entered the earth's atmosphere, a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle's external tank and broke the wing of the spacecraft. First, atmospheric gasses entered the cabin, then the shuttle itself broke into pieces.
NASA recovered 84,000 pieces from a debris field of over 2,000 square miles. The investigation into the disaster was exhaustive. Besides the physical cause of the accident, investigators made some damning remarks about the culture that led to the problem. Reliance on past success had become a substitute for true learning.
During a post-launch review, a group of engineers actually saw this foam dislodge from the rocket. They tried to pass this information on and voiced their concern about it.
NASA's management, which by this stage liked to manage everything 'by the rules', had seen dislodged foam before, and, according to their institutionalised perceptions, deemed it to be unimportant.
The engineers tried to argue that it seemed like a lot more foam than usual. It was a qualitative argument, based on human insight and intelligence. But NASA was unable to listen. The set-in-stone norms had it that dislodging foam was a known quantity, and the voices of the engineers went unheeded.
Encouraging imaginative debate allows situational awareness to pass up and down the chain of command.
NASA by this stage was so bound in rules and procedures that, in important ways, it had ceased to be a learning, experimenting culture. Now it was an unheeding, process-following one. And that made it incapable of hearing an idea, to its great detriment.
The best and most agile organisations are not run by rigid rules. Instead, they favour imaginative debate. Encouraging imaginative debate allows situational awareness to pass up and down the chain of command. It promotes the opportunity to see innovation possibilities, and it becomes a safeguard against unexpected problems.
And so, a simple test: Which culture prevails in your organisation today? Imaginative debate? Or rigid rules? If it's the latter, remember: They're your rules. You can break them.