When NASA projects failed, they failed in the most public and tragic way possible. But one man turned NASA’s fatal flaw into a career diagnosing dysfunctional project teams and turning them into low risk, high performing ones.
Dr Charles Pellerin (‘Charlie’) has an impressive résumé—one that he says even he can’t believe—but he is best known for his role as former director of Astrophysics at NASA, leading the team that built the Hubble telescope, the $2 billion 15-year project where a flawed mirror meant the telescope didn’t work.
Charlie knows that had he read the failure review for the Challenger thoroughly, he would have realised that the fault lay not in the unsuitable O-rings used in the shuttle boosters, but the hostile culture that meant the small things that could make a big difference weren’t communicated.
Acknowledging the social context problems of Challenger could have prevented the Hubble project from its failure, he adds. “The chairman of the failure review board said, ‘I want to understand why there were all these hints of a problem and why the contractor Perkin Elmer never communicated them.’ He investigated the working climate and found we had put Perkin Elmer under so much duress and so much stress and cut into their profit every time they told us we had a problem, that they had no time at all to chase down anything they thought probably wasn’t a problem,” Charlie explains.
“When he wrote the report to Congress, how we spent $2 billion in 15 years and built a completely useless telescope, he said the root cause was leadership failure. I was the leader of the team! The reason he said it was leadership failure was that the people who led this program out of NASA created an environment so hostile that there was no reason the contractor would be motivated to tell them anything about problems they thought might not be real.”
Happily, NASA retained Charlie—”isn’t it great when you break something and they give you a promotion when you fix it?” he quips. After formulating NASA’s post-cold war strategy in Washington he later left the organisation for a stint in academia to discover, in his own words, “how this thing called leadership could trump the finest technical minds in the world”.
Technology was not the cause
He discovered that all the malfunctions he had previously understood as technical failures—the wrong O-ring, the flawed mirror—were in fact social.
“Technical people make the same mistake: they always stop at the technical root cause,” he says. “I went back and read the failure review of Challenger and they latched onto what they called ‘normalisation of deviance’, where a group practices behaviours that might be deviant in absolute terms but okay locally. The problems were not technical at the core—they were social.”
Although he was pleased to identify the real cause of NASA’s problems, Charlie didn’t stop there. After reading Diane Vaughn’s claim about the Challenger disaster, that ‘social context problems are impossible to remedy because they are invisible and unmeasurable’, he decided to take a technical position on the subject and create a measurement.