It has happened before. There are more illustrious instances of calamity that have resulted from what experts call “Groupthink”. The three most cited management failures in modern times include sinking of the Titanic, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of the US administration and finally the Columbia explosion.
The Titanic, as we all know, sank in her maiden voyage from England to the US in 1912, taking along with her 1400 people. Some of the people who had designed or been involved in building the ship had serious doubts about her design, but they had kept quiet as she sailed because they did not want to look foolish in front of majority of their colleagues who did not seem to share their doubts. Even as she was on the ocean, it seems that other ships in the vicinity had radioed the Titanic, warning her of icebergs – she ignored those: read someone did not exercise the professional requirement to ask questions on how they might impact the ship.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave clearance for a covert attack on Cuba by 1400 Cuban exiles in what has been termed as the Bay of Pig disaster. Intelligence reports indicated that such an attack would result in a popular uprising in Cuba resulting in the ultimate unseating of Fidel Castro. Contrary to expectations, when the 1400 invaders arrived, they were far outnumbered by the Cuban military that was forewarned of the assault. 1200 were taken as prisoners and 200 died in the fiasco. One key assumption that was made during the infamous invasion was that the exiles would dissolve into Cuba without questioning the fact that between Bay of Pigs and the mainland lay eighty miles of swampland. When the mission failed, it was apparent that the President had been misled and it was even clearer that people who doubted the success of the strategy had suppressed their urge to question because everyone else seemed to be so patriotically pushing the idea! After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a term called “groupthink” emerged and subsequently researched very extensively by celebrated Yale psychologist Irving Janis in the seventies. Janis brought to light how groups of decision makers become blind to impending warnings when they are bound together on a mission and members fail to raise critical questions because of the need for false harmony.
In 1986, in one of NASA’s worst disasters, space shuttle Challenger exploded, 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all 6 astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher on board. It was the tenth voyage for the space shuttle and the most watched on television because of the historicity of McAuliffe’s presence. The space shuttle’s explosion made it one of the most cited case studies in contemporary engineering and management theory. The space shuttle exploded because of a defect in what was termed as the O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster. This part was made at Morton Thiokol Inc., a sub-contractor of Marshall Space Center. Tests indicated that the O-ring was not reliable at temperatures below 53 degrees and people knew about that fact. The Challenger lift-of took place when the temperature was 36 degrees – it is obvious that no one asked a question while the shuttle was given the go-ahead.
What happens when thinking men and women, sometimes highly educated and sometimes highly experienced, gather around a table to discuss matters of great importance and then because of their unanimity, they lead to unimaginable damage to life, property and organizational reputation? Why do they fail to ask critical questions? Why do they sometimes have the questions but choose to remain silent? Is it caused by a desire for false harmony? Is it the fear of ridicule? Is because they are beholden? Or, is it the sheer abdication of responsibility? Is it likely to driven more by cultural factors? Or is it just the DNA of an organization?
In truth, it is all of the above and probably some more. It is also about size. In every large organization – public and private, where groups of people routinely gather around teak paneled tables to dwell on matters of consequence, fail to act as professionals. For the one that meets the eye, there are countless many that go unnoticed. The truth be told: even in the United States where there is a bigger tradition of failure-analysis, highly placed individuals routinely fall prey to “groupthink”. On our part, we would all do well to know that it may well be happening in our own organizations where every time a critical decision is taken, the voice of dissent is not been listened to as intently as the voice of approval.
For more on the subject, read ‘Leading with Questions’ by Michael Marquardt and see you soon.