The invisible gorilla

By Venky Krishnamurthy

Recently I read about  NASA’s Columbia mission disaster. As many of us remember, on Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded the following in their final investigation report 

Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop,” the board wrote, citing “reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices” and “organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information” among the problems found.


As per the report, some of the engineers discussed the dangers of foam falling apart with the senior management. However, the management simply ignored them and didn’t attempt to find a fix, which is a reflection of deep cultural issues at NASA. The management didn’t think this was a major problem. The report also claims that management didn’t bother to take action because of a view that the problem was unfixable, based on past experience.  

The reason I am referencing this article here is because I see a lot of similarities between this case study and the way enterprises typically operate. When the team members see a risk in the project and reports to the management, either the issue is ignored, or the team member is termed as a trouble maker.

From the leadership point of view, the takeaways for us are:

  1. Give serious attention to every risk or issue raised by the team members. Don't ignore any even if it sounds stupid
  2. Don’t let your past experiences stop you from finding and trying new solutions.

In large enterprises and complex programs, issues crop  up all the time. Leaders could become immune to listening to problems and start focusing only on larger issues. In fact, this pattern of giving too much importance to bigger issues and ignoring the smaller ones seem to cause major disasters in history.

As per the discipline of complexity science, many a times the weak signals carry very powerful and important information. We tend to ignore them and focus only on strong signals, thus causing major problems.

The experiment from psychologists, “The monkey business” illusion is a classic example of how we miss out on the “Gorillas” amidst chasing key goals.

The Columbia disaster could have been averted if the management listened to engineers and attempted some steps to fix the foam issue. 

Similarly, major challenges in the project schedule, scope or budget could be averted if the management listens to the weak signals. That is, small risks hidden from the "big visible charts".

Before I conclude, let me ask you two questions.

Think about your current project, visualize your project risk board"

  1. Have you missed seeing any “gorillas”?
  2. Have you recently ignored any issue raised by a "junior" team member?


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