Challenging Decisions: Decision-Making Through a Social Framework
Many factors contribute to decision-making in a complex situation where leaders attempt to rationalize their choices to fit self-serving needs with little regard or room for alternative choices. Pressures can be felt from outside sources in any corporation or governmental entity with regard to the current political landscape, as well as economic, and social factors outside of the project or proposal at hand. It is human instinct to preserve the current method and mode of operation and change is difficult to all employees and top-tier management, as well. It is the best asset of a leader to slowly integrate new ideas into a project and to avoid rushed and discontinuous change rather than the most effective method of introducing calculated incremental change. Successes in the past do not ensure present success in that social factors are constantly evolving and need to be taken heed of. The pragmatic approach of hurriedly completing a project due to past success and blocking the changes as insignificant are most certainly a recipe for disaster. Nowhere is this more evident than with NASA’s decision to launch the shuttle “Challenger” with devastating consequences.
Many of the decisions surrounding the launch of the Challenger were rushed and hurried. They were curtailed around the expectations of the projected audience, including the media and funding sources, and the future of NASA, itself. These burdening factors of performance to ensure that the space program would remain a top-tier and a properly funded government entity most certainly led to the decision to give the “green light” to launch. The added factors of social responsiveness of reporting a needed willingness to curtail spending and use improper, but less expensive equipment, was a calculated risk. Totally open sharing was not done to the public on the fact that the equipment had not been given the proper course to be tested, it was ultimately labeled as a non-issue that had been overemphasized. Whenever a person’s anchoring in the past is combined with a sense of urgent technological change in a destabilized environment, open source sharing is of the utmost important and needs to be implemented with all information readily available to all parties involved.
Economic and political forces effecting the space program and impending launch of the Challenger were no secret to any of the NASA employees or the public at large. There had been an economic downturn and lack of enthusiasm by the polled public on their willingness to continue viewing space exploration as a national necessity and other economic issues, such as increased taxation and the effect that a new cabinet in Congress might have on day to day living. There was, as there always is, a political push to sift through national issues and have emerge only a few top priorities for politicians to debate with the agenda of pushing through the next leaders in the White House with their responses to these issues. Fear of the unknown on the brink of an election led to uncertainty and urgency that undoubtedly caused the NASA leaders and supporters to push through with the Challenger launch. Understanding that fear is a normal response to an ambiguous future and acknowledging this should have been priority #1 with NASA.
With the uncertain future came a glimmer of hope in a woman astronaut as a wonderful political pundit. Social factors, then, most likely became the focus and locus of control was shifted to these outside factors. Rather than leadership focusing on their internal locus of control with the repercussions of failure being placed on the decision-makers, the shift came toward these outside forces. The social factor came into play with the groundbreaking opportunity for a woman astronaut into space in the press. This gave an opportunity for NASA to shift away from its under-tested equipment and upheaval of internal structure to a media story that helped the department to stray from the logistics and technical forces at hand and into the media, instead. There was an urgency already being felt and the use of this story in the press only rushed the process, as many leaders at NASA probably felt that they had no choice, but to go forward with their launch. As stated previously, they had shifted the locus of control to the economic, political, and in this case, social factors outside of their agency. Had the leadership there realized they were operating under the success of their old program and were ignoring future realities, control could have been maintained within the organizational power would not have been displaced over to the outside influences that began to guide them.
The focus, also, became about altering assumptions that critics in the administration might have had that led to a negative result; this being postponing the launch until all technical problems had been resolved. This is common in an environment permeated by discontinuous change and the blocking of the idea of possible future maladies. Success was measured less in the ability of the launch sequence to be properly executed, but in having it publicly displayed at what was deemed a politically proper time. It is fair to say that the astronauts were implicitly viewed as political pawns, though no one would acknowledge this factor. It is at this point that business ethics should override any ulterior motive for the launch. But, since NASA was operating under the old paradigm the safety of the astronauts were not questioned, as they believed it was a guarantee, as did most of the American public. Realizing that there should have been a new paradigm outlining safety factors of the untested equipment and ultimately a new age of space exploration would have helped to create proponents of this safety at all costs.
In addition to the untested equipment, there were also other factors that led to uncertainty of the fulfillment of the launch. Engineers voiced there concern on not only the equipment, but, also the unusually cold weather that was unexpected for that part of Florida that day. There was a series of exchanges over whether the launch should be initiated while the event had now a worldwide audience anxiously waiting to see the first woman astronaut in flight. Leadership most likely looked at the impact of the earliest space conquests on their program and in the world by surpassing Russia in an ongoing battle of will. With this worldwide audience, leadership undoubtedly believed that Russia could and would surpass them in their voyages. The competitive factor, no doubt, shaded the clarity of the decision that was to be made. The past and the future were not discernable at this time, as leadership knew the importance of equating political change with scientific advancement. For all anyone cared to acknowledge it was the patriotic duty for the United States to continue on this mission and the pressure of this certainly led to the decision to begin sequencing the shuttle. Understanding that this was not a duty to the citizens of the United States and not a spectacle to the world would have toned down the fear that NASA felt for their future. At this point it seemed to be to late, but having a safety first attitude would have given all the audience a sense that NASA cares deeply about their astronauts and their program and would never risk their lives of the administration’s reputation for any reason. Instead the calamity of the event had the opposite effect.
Even the most seasoned and ethical members of NASA’s leadership were pressured by outside forces in lobbying and marketing. The lobbyists put the most pressure on the chief administrators and explicitly believed that without this mission done at the time originally set, there would be no more future exploration. At this point the lobbyists should have been excluded from the decision of the day. It would have been fine to hear their feedback throughout the planning of the mission, but on the day of launch, their concerns and pressure should have taken a backseat to the engineering and scientific professionals. The intrusion of specialists outside NASA was not looked upon as such, but with the uncertain future and fear held by the NASA team, it seemed a necessary source of information at the time. In addition, marketing efforts to promote a wide audience put control into their hands, leaving leaders with less of an ability to see clearly and instead to be lead in the wrong direction. Chief spokesman, Dr. William Lloyd, heeding to this pressure ultimately decided to follow through. The most important group, the technicians, disagreed, but were ignored. In this whole scenario of the shift of a new space paradigm, leadership and hierarchy were not properly given the checks and balances that are needed in times of decision-making. The media, politics, and other social forces became leaders instead and failure to recognize this was monumentally unsound. The opposite effect, in turn, occurred. A government agency was looked upon as not being able to properly carry out functions in a bureaucratic setting in the proper way.
In conclusion, change always creates a desire to look at past successes and to ignore future problems. This anchoring to the past will always cloud judgment in any corporation or government entity. For NASA with a long and proud history of space exploration, this anchoring in the past is not surprising. As well, control was given to outside sources; politics, economics, and the worldwide media audience. In ambiguous times like these. Leaders must emerge ready to take the challenge of embracing change and setting protocol to fit internal needs and safety. The challenge was not met with the shuttle Challenger and much can be learned by this series of unfortunate events. For the future, it can only be hoped that this tragedy will have a positive effect on future operations both with NASA and corporations worldwide.