March 30, 2012

Management and the Hubble

There's an interesting article making the rounds today:

It's about the former head of NASA's Astrophysics division, Charlie Pellerin, and his experiences surrounding the development and subsequent repair of the flawed mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope. It's not a great piece--it devolves into fluff at the end--but the lessons Pellerin's story imply are universal.

The actual cause of the problem was actually something very simple: a worker at the contractor who was building the main mirror used a shortcut to install a calibration mirror (he cut a hole in a piece of tape and introduced a burr in the mount), leading to a 1.3mm error in the location of the mirror's mount. Because the calibration mirror was used to determine the correctness of the main mirror, the main mirror eventually included that error.

It turns out everyone knew about the error in the main mirror as soon as they put it in its mount, but came to a rationalization that the way the mirror was mounted allowed gravity to introduce errors--exactly the thing the mount was designed to prevent.

This type of problem crops up all the time--Pellerin brings up the Challenger launch decision and KAL's famous accident rate in the early 1990's--and the list of ingredients look like every software project I've worked on for the last 15 years:
  1. Teams of smart people, who are
  2. working under pressure,
  3. to deliver something complex
The key insight the article brings (and the reason I'm writing this) is that the social context in which people do their work is the most important determinant (Pellerin claims about 80%) of the outcome, and this is because of a simple fact:

Smart, motivated people tend to think that individual abilities determine outcomes, but this is almost never true.

When smart people encounter problems in project, the first place they look for solutions is inward--"how can I fix this?". Given that the social context is so important, this is actually the last place we should look. We all make this mistake.

But more importantly, for you and me this has a profound meaning which can be hard to accept:

Some problems are not fixable.

As individuals, we can and often do work within the social context to solve a problem, but we've all been faced with situations where the context is out of our control for any number of reasons. And if you can't change that context, 80% of the time you can't fix the problem.

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