2 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Catching Up: Professional Ethics And The Challenger Disaster’””
“The problem is management training, and the understandable reluctance to delegate decisions downwards. Managers feel like they’re in charge, so they should be the ones to make decisions. Often they’re not the best qualified, because they are not grasping the full scope and tradeoffs of the decisions.”
There is an alternative point of view on this: that it is the job of the management to take responsibility for the trade-offs and risks involved in decision-making, and this can not be ‘delegated downward’ – managers are in charge of taking decisions, whether they feel like it or not!
The responsibility of the technical experts is to put their opinions forward clearly, so that the final decision duly takes them into account. In this case they well and truly buried the lede – the key point on they key slide was in the smallest print in the last bullet-point “Volume of ramp is 1920 cu vs 3 cu in for test”.
I can only guess at unwillingness to say “Yes, we tested this scenario, but we must disregard the tests when we come to make decisions because the test conditions were not anything like flight conditions (or, as the bullet point above said, “Flight condition is significantly outside of test database”).
Such unwillingness to be clear can be symptomatic of a culture of incompetence: By burying the problem (metaphorically) in footnote 3 of page 127, it is possible to both avoid criticism for not doing the testing properly, and at the same time claim the issue was brought to the attention of management. It takes great attention to detail on the part of management to smoke out this kind of behaviour, just as it takes a degree of courage not to do it in the first place.
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Matthew B. scored a Comment of the Day by raising an issue I had never thought about before: how the misapplication of PowerPoint leads to inadequate training and information dissemination within organizations and bureaucracies. He also references the reluctance of managers to know when to hand over decision-making to subordinates. That is something I have thought about, a great deal.
Two of my favorite movies illustrate how competent leaders and managers know when to delegate a crucial decision down. “Topsy-Turvy,” the superb 1999 film depicting the creation of “The Mikado” by Gilbert and Sullivan, accurately depicts the real incident when, after the final rehearsal, W.S. Gilbert told the “Mikado” cast that he was cutting “My Object All Sublime,” also known as “The Mikado’s Song.” Gilbert was a tyrannical director, and the cast was terrified of incurring his wrath. This time, however, they stood up to him. The cast as one told him that he was making a mistake. The soloist, Richard Temple, they told their shocked and steaming director who also had conceived of the song, should have the chance to perform it in front of an audience. His fellow cast members were certain it would be a hit. Gilbert, recognizing the certitude the cast must have had to risk his fury at being contradicted, decided that his performers might have a clearer understanding of the show even that he had, and relented. Temple would sing about letting “the punishment fit the crime” on opening night.
The song was an instant sensation, like “The Mikado” itself, and is still one of the most quoted of all G&S songs.
The other example is at the climax of “Hoosiers,” the great basketball film based on the true story of the miraculous Indiana state championship won by a tiny school from Milan, Ind. in 1954. During the last time-out before the team’s last chance to score, which would, if successful, give the team a one-point victory over their greatly favored competition in the championship game, the coach (Gene Hackman), who has led the ragtag group this far by emphasizing teamwork over individual achievement, lays out a play in which the team’s superstar, Jimmy Chitwood will be a decoy. He plans for another player to take the final shot, but the team doesn’t move. “What’s the matter with you?” he shouts as his players just stare, looking hesitant. “If I get the shot, I’ll make it,” Jimmy says, after a long pause. So the coach, who has insisted all season that his word was law, makes the same decision Gilbert did. When your subordinates are that sure, trust them. They know better than you.
Jimmy shoots and scores the winning basket as time runs out.
Here is Matthew B.’s Comment of the Day on “Comment Of The Day: ‘Catching Up: Professional Ethics And The Challenger Disaster’”:
Another factor in both of the shuttle disasters is management by PowerPoint. The issue isn’t PowerPoint itself, and this isn’t an indictment of Microsoft. PowerPoint is only an tool; the same problem existed in the old days of transparencies and overhead projectors.
The problem is management training, and the understandable reluctance to delegate decisions downwards. Managers feel like they’re in charge, so they should be the ones to make decisions. Often they’re not the best qualified, because they are not grasping the full scope and tradeoffs of the decisions. This is most acute when talking about technical matters that are beyond the understanding of upper managers.
Often PowerPoint is the tool of choice to make managers think they grasp the details. PowerPoint was never intended to be the presentation. It was supposed to be a visual aid. Instead it is often used as the entire means of communication. What’s particularly bad about this means of communication is that it is turning into what should be a lengthy memo into a select number of bullet points. PowerPoint even discourages complete sentences. More insidious still is that often the time allotted for presentations goes down as the matter is taken to higher levels of management. Those sentence fragments are shortened and consolidated further and further as the basic understanding of a topic decreases with each higher levels of management.
A blog in relation to the Columbia disaster, with much more detail, is here