Most people do not set out to destroy where they work
If you believe in people, how do you hear their voice when they disagree?
Some of us are old enough to remember January 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds into the STS-51-L mission, it broke apart, and in an instant seven members of the Space Shuttle Challenger were dead. In that moment, in the pit of their stomachs, some people winced, what they had been saying might happen, just did.
The loss of life was terrible. In some ways, the root cause is more disturbing. The then 28-year old Space Shuttle Program was a model of success. One of its stated guiding principles was Safety First.
Yet in the rush, in the pressure to complete 24 scheduled launches per year, another unstated guiding principle had a pervasive effect on the organization, its subcontractors, and indeed all who came into contact with what was up to this point, a highly successful organization.
I worked in a similar organization of sorts... a prime contractor to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. At the time of the Challenger disaster, we proudly hailed over one million nautical miles sailed under nuclear power without accident. NASA’s success—erased in an instant, along with the seven precious lives that trusted in the huge complex of programs, processes, and people to keep them safe—was eerily similar with our success.
There were many lessons from Challenger; some we took to heart. One of those heart-lessons was the idea of a “dissenting opinion.” (This is not a new idea. The Supreme Court has long issued dissenting opinions.) The post disaster investigation revealed that it was more than the infamous O-ring that led to the loss of our American heroes.
Imagine, within the organization, people were saying—and saying it out loud—stop, wait, do not move forward. But the pervasive pressure to launch, to succeed, filled the organization. The result was that these small voices were relegated to the unsatisfying role of prophet.
Following this organizational failure, my one-million nautical mile organization mandated a process, installed a conduit, that would bring dissenting opinions, however small, to the ears of those who made the decisions, so they would hear—and consider.
I remember the day a technical submittal, complete with a well-reasoned dissenting opinion, received the most amazing response from Headquarters. Headquarters had read both technical arguments, and concluded the dissenting opinion was the better choice. That day a new culture emerged.
The point here is to not point at others, but to look in the mirror. I now lead a new organization. Have I created the type of culture where dissent is allowed? Have I created the type of culture where, after dissent is expressed, the dissenters can still feel a part of the team?
Today, organizations must have a healthy sense of urgency. However, with no culture, no process, no systems, to receive a dissenting opinion, the rush to succeed might just send us blindly careening over a cliff. If we say we believe in our people, then we must put in place mechanisms to hear them.
Leadership presents the opportunity to be trusted. Trusted to find the best answer. Trusted to create a culture where dissenting voices are heard. It looks like a world where those in authority take the risk of caring about the dissenters and their opinions—so much so that they allow themselves the possibility, however remote, to agree. In the end, it is a leadership issue.