The Most Serious Threat to Your Business, And What To Do About It

The 1980’s was a world with no smartphones, and no social media networks.

Watching events take place in real time was rare.

Most news in the 80’s still took hours if not days to spread around the world.

If you happened to be in elementary school in the United States during the 80’s, chances are good, in January of 1986 you and your classmates were glued to a television watching the space shuttle Challenger launch live. Christa McAuliffe was to be the first American teacher in history to visit space.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after blasting off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven astronauts on board, and leaving all of those watching live completely in shock.

Most Americans remember exactly where they were when it happened.

The catastrophe was the result of a design flaw with the O-rings. An issue that was well known to both the engineers and leadership within NASA prior to the launch.

In fact, issues with the O-rings were discovered two and a half years prior to the fateful launch in January 1986.

The issue was well documented, and even after the O-rings were redesignated as “Criticality 1,”  meaning that their failure would result in the destruction of the spacecraft, NASA launched the Challenger seven more times into space.

The faulty O-rings had caused minor issues during ALL the previous launches, but because those issues self-corrected, NASA’s leadership and engineers chose to continue ignoring the issue with each subsequent launch.

In reviewing the Challenger disaster, sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the term Normalization of deviance.  The root cause of the Challenger disaster, according to Vaughan, was NASA officials’ decisions to continue flying the space shuttle despite the “Criticality 1” designation of the O-rings.

Vaughan describes this phenomenon as, “occurring when people within an organization become so insensitive to deviant practice that it no longer feels wrong. Insensitivity occurs insidiously and sometimes over years because disaster does not happen until other critical factors line up. In clinical practice, failing to do time outs before procedures, shutting off alarms, and breaches of infection control are deviances from evidence-based practice.”

What’s scary about Normalization of Deviance, is the organization itself no longer has the capacity to self-diagnose.  Meaning they can no longer see how they’ve veered away from the standards and principles that once guided them.

I don’t know about your organization, but at Ugly Mug Marketing, we are at continuous risk of Normalization of Deviance occurring.

As we grow, we get busier.
And as we get busier we begin making exceptions.

We make a commitment,
We get busy,
We fail to live up to our commitment,
And then we justify the exception to keeping our commitment.

Over time, our word (which is directly tied to our moral authority – more on than another day) becomes less trustworthy.

Not only do we begin accepting the exceptions…
But those around us accept and expect them as well.
It’s the exact same pattern that occurred with NASA prior to the fatal launch on January 28, 1986.

The warnings were blatant.
The recurring issue with the O-rings.
Deciding to launch in temperatures below the minimum required for a launch.
And several engineers warning NASA’s leadership team to postpone the launch.

In hindsight ALL of the warning signs are blatantly obvious.

But leading up to the launch, the warnings and concerns seemed normal – nothing to be concerned with.

What warning signs are you ignoring?
What warning signs are we ignoring?
Where have we begun accepting excuses and exceptions as the norm?