For those of you interested in crisis, this article on the tragic Challenger and Columbia space shuttles is a reminder of how things can easily go wrong. Even for the best and most revered of organizations. NASA’s reputation never truly recovered from these failures. We have come to learn, even from pre-Internet days, that the tiniest link or problem can cause the greatest of catastrophes. The article cited the theory of “normalization of deviance “ from Diane Vaughan, a sociologist, who was on the commission investigating the 2003 Columbia disaster. When I was writing my book on reputation recovery, I read many of her articles about the 1986 Challenger disaster and how some risks became accepted as part of how business gets done. People just get used to or should I say immune to risk-taking. Vaughan uses the example from the Challenger where the O rings’ erosion had been known on earlier launches of spacecraft and simply became routine, hence the normalization of deviance. As Vaughan says, “They applied all the usual rules in a situation where the usual rules didn’t apply.”
The challenge for companies is figuring out how to not become immune to the everyday risks that go with doing certain jobs such as in manufacturing, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, automotive, mining, oil, just about everything if you start listing them out like I am doing. This brought to mind what it must be like working on oil rigs and how the risks to safety are there each and every day. How the most minor short cut turn on a dime to be the final blow. How do companies train their employees to not take minor glitches for granted – lives and reputations could be at stake if they ever so slightly deviate. Another question to ask is how do companies make sure that they listen hard to grumblings from employees? Maybe there is a kernel of truth to be had. Perhaps companies need a Bad News Officer who is Mr or Ms Gloom and Doom. That person could be responsible for bringing all the bad news that no one wants to hear or tell and put it on display for leaders to cope with. The hard truth might be tough to hear but the least expensive way to run a company, maybe even save lives.