Managerial Decision Making

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On February 1, 2003 a great American tragedy occurred as NASA’s space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry to Earth, killing all seven crew members on board. This marked the 28th and final mission for one of the United State’s most prestigious orbiters. During the weeks and months following this tragedy, many people asked “why” such a terrible event occurred. And while the root-cause may seem obvious now, many theories were raised by Congress, the press and engineers within NASA. More importantly, many people were looking for a pair of feet to lay the blame. Months later, investigators were able to determine that a piece of foam from the shuttle’s gas tank fell off during launch and pierced its left wing. Unfortunately, the foam caused enough damage to crack the wing, fully exposing it to the hot plasma encountered upon re-entry to Earth. To make matters worse, NASA was fully aware that the piece of foam had fallen from the aircraft and the internal paper-trail all pointed towards concern amongst its engineers about the foam’s impact. While in retrospect, this series of events might seem “obvious” they were far from it for NASA’s highly trained engineers and managers. NASA is world-renowned for having the best and brightest minds across the industry and as teams reviewed data from the launch, they were making decisions based on their experience, knowledge of the aircraft and what the initial data reported. They had no reason to believe they were making a tragic error by enabling the space shuttle Columbia to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. In an essay, Malcolm Gladwell gives this phenomenon a name: “creeping determinism”. The term refers to “the sense that grows upon us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable.” What seems obvious now was clearly was not obvious to the shuttle engineers and managers during Columbia’s flight. Foam falling off a shuttle during launch was not a new phenomenon; one of NASA’s software...
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