Data, guts, and the art of decision-making

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

Thirty-three years ago this week, I and several other people stood on a roof of an office building in Florida and watched the space shuttle Challenger thunder upwards into the brisk morning sky. We applauded and stayed long enough to see the two rocket boosters banana-peel off the main engine, assured the flight was on its way. 

Coming back into the building, we again stood — this time in shocked silence — staring at TV reports revealing that what we saw was actually the two rocket boosters corkscrewing mindlessly into space as the rest of the rocket, with seven souls aboard, disintegrated and tumbled into the ocean. 

Over the following weeks, the unsettling truth became clear — NASA had issued a go-launch order on the heels of a heated, pre-dawn dispute about whether the o-rings that joined the booster rocket sections would hold their own against lava-hot gases after being chilled all night on the launch pad by cold weather. Nobody knew for sure. 

Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the designer of the booster rockets, fretted for months over early indications of o-ring failure. Facing pressure by the hour from NASA to attest that the o-rings would not pose a danger, the senior engineer pleaded: “I can’t prove it to you, but it goes against goodness and our experience.”

But he lacked the data. NASA, facing political pressure to launch, brushed aside the hunch, and the rest is tragic history. 

However, as we on these days reflect back on such searing memories, it is worth noting the failure then of not just engineering but of human decision-making can still nudge us today into faulty judgments.

I know companies that inhale data as the foundation for their decisions. I also know companies that are intuitive and almost visceral in how they manage and make decisions. Either one alone can make a mistake.Trusting our guts can be a cover for lazy thinking; data can be a cover for our unwillingness to have courage amid uncertainty. 

There is no perfect model for decision making. However, I see three principles that can help an organization be better prepared to make the tough calls at the tough times:

  1. Test your decision-making model as much as you would a prototype or new system. Create scenarios and internal case studies to experience how the team operates under pressure. 
  2. Create a shared sense of how decisions reflect the mission and purpose of the organization. I know of a company that simply holds the standard “Do the right thing.” Rather than an invitation to chaos, that simple statement summons good data but also the “goodness and experience” that more often than not leads to a good decision — especially over the long-term. The fatal flaw in Challenger was allowing political pressure to call the hand, when political pressure owned no part of a failure.
  3. Keep the right voices in the room. Good decisions today are often a stew of mind, heart and guts. Sometimes the greatest insights came from quieter, thoughtful voices that can be drowned out by voices that are louder or organizationally more powerful. Defer to the people who are closest to the truth.



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