Culture is what shapes how organizations operate. It’s the reflection of “this is how things are done here.” It shapes the written—and particularly the unwritten—rules and norms of how we function.
Being able to read and navigate culture is a crucial skill in leadership and politics. We need to know how to fit in and get things done.
At the same time, there are also times where it is necessary to stand up and stand out. Where we need to challenge, to shift the narrative, to highlight that what is expected is not acceptable.
This is challenging to do. It requires confidence. It also takes no uncertain amount of courage and conviction. And it needs to be done very, very judiciously.
What we’re essentially talking about here is how to deliver messages that—while essential—are uncomfortable. They are truths that are important to hear, but that many would prefer to remain unacknowledged. They are the difficult but necessary perspectives that force a new interpretation, encourage different understanding and suggest alternative courses of action?
Before we can shift the conversation, though, we need to know why it hasn’t already shifted on its own. The easy answer is that we are already invested in our current interpretation of reality. And while that is true as far as it goes, it only goes so far as an explanation. It’s also important to understand how we came to put our stake in that particular viewpoint in the first place, and why we now seem to be doubling down and hanging on to it.
Organizational culture doesn’t just define the way things get done in an organization. It also shapes the beliefs and values of that organization. Culture has a significant influence on what is accepted as truth. Part of becoming enmeshed in a given culture involves learning and embracing the essential truths that it accepts as given.
One of the more famous examples of this is the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger on the morning of 28 January 1986. The results were catastrophic, and most know the general circumstances of the failure (the failure of the o-rings in the solid rocket boosters, as a result of the extreme cold of the morning launch).
But the specifics reveal some important particulars about how truth gets interpreted (and re-interpreted) within organizations. What many don’t know is that—on a teleconference the evening before—the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters had recommended to NASA to abort the launch. Roger Boisjoly, the engineer responsible for the o-ring seals, made a passionate argument that the expected temperatures at the time of launch would cause the seals to fail.
This was not an argument that NASA launch executives wanted to hear, and vigorously rejected it. And the question we have to ask is, “Why?” There were several factors at play. For starters, this was to be the first of 15 planned launches in 1986. This was an aggressive flight schedule, and six more in a year than had ever been launched before. This particular launch was already experiencing its fifth delay, and there was significant pressure to get it in the air.
The aggressiveness of the flight schedule was the result of the first questionable truth we’re going to explore here. Fifteen launches as a goal was intended merely as a warm-up, with a commitment to increase launches to 24 per year by 1990. That would represent half of the original target of 48 launches promised when the shuttle program was initially approved in 1972. The initial business case indicated launches would be a regular occurrence, happening almost weekly. And the goal to increase launches was made despite the fact that resources strongly suggested a much lower capacity.
A different truth was the actual launch decision, and the recommendation being made by Boisjoly and the team from Morton-Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid rocket booster. The record demonstrates that NASA didn’t want to hear the recommendation not to proceed. What’s instructive is the argument that was made as to why the launch should proceed, despite Morton-Thiokol’s recommendation. In particular, the claim was that no launch commit criteria were being violated, and that this was an issue that had already been resolved.
The basis for those assertions had their origins in recommendations from the previous January. As a result of a near-failure of the o-rings during what was the then-coldest launch (at 53ºF), Morton-Thiokol was charged with preparing a briefing for NASA. According to Allan McDonald, the director of the solid rocket booster for Morton-Thiokol, NASA executives specifically instructed that any references to temperature sensitivity be explicitly changed to a more vague reference to “o-ring resiliency.”
The presumed truth that the o-ring wouldn’t fail because of temperature was because of active efforts to prevent that truth from being aired, and potentially incorporated into the launch commit criteria. This in turn allowed NASA to maintain Vandenburg Air Force Base in California as an alternate shuttle launch location, where temperatures are routinely much colder than Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
All of these factors pointed to an accepted set of organizational truths in NASA that temperature was not a factor in launching the shuttle, the o-rings would not fail and that the space shuttle was safe in its current configuration. These collective—and inherently incorrect—beliefs directly led to one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the space program, and one that was entirely preventable.
While the consequences of these truths were significant, the reality is that organizations deal with developing and accepting similar realities on a regular basis. Business cases are oversold, and then their promises become doctrine (no matter how unrealistic that they are). Project estimates are made, and their numbers become rock-solid and unchanging commitments. Reviews are conducted, and difficult or uncomfortable messages are downplayed. Decisions are made, and contrary perspectives are withheld or talked around.
With luck, the consequences aren’t as significant as they were at NASA. But that’s not to say that there aren’t consequences. And when we let discomfort get in the way of good answers, we are enabling bad decisions to continue to be made for the wrong reasons. The challenge is being able to to confront and shift perspectives.
Doing this still requires a read of the culture of the organization. We need an assessment of where the culture is going, and enough foresight to imagine what that might mean and to envision the consequences that can ensue. We need to understand the stakes, and assess what happens if the wrong decision plays out.
That’s not necessarily hard to do. What it requires is consideration of all the ways that a decision might play out, and what that would look like. Going back to the Challenger decision for a moment, this was a perspective that was critically absent. No one at NASA—during any of the deliberations—allowed for the possibility that Morton-Thiokol was right in their recommendation. They were trusting in the safety of the shuttle and the systems around it, while dismissing the very people that had helped to develop those systems.
It’s also important to ask whether this is your battle, and if you are prepared to take it on. To be clear, it’s not about passing the buck and saying “not my problem.” But it is about asking “Is this a hill that I’m prepared to die on?” And uncomfortable as that phrasing might sound, it’s an important question that directly ties to the severity of the consequences if a decision proceeds or a truth goes unchallenged.
It goes without saying that constantly challenging the organization on its truths is not going to win us any popularity contests. Worse, though, is that it actually undermines our credibility when it really does matter. Just like the boy who cried wolf, being the person that constantly calls out every detail is going to get us a reputation; that reputation is most likely going to get us ignored or dismissed by the time we get to a decision where the stakes are high and the consequences matter.
We also need to ask whether we are the one that needs to deliver the message. And again, this is not about passing the buck. It is very much about asking—in any given context—whether our input will be heard, acknowledged and respected. We need to start with the message that needs to be delivered. And we need to make an honest assessment of where that message needs to be received from in order to have optimal impact. That might be us. It might—based on expertise, credibility or reputation—be someone else.
Sometimes, very necessarily, a messenger may need to be someone who is seen as being independent of the organization and its culture. It is a fundamental but unfortunate reality that outsiders often are perceived to have more credibility and expertise than someone within the organization. The result is that sometimes consultants are hired solely for their ability to speak a truth that otherwise the organization can’t hear.
As a consultant, I recognize and understand this role is one of the reasons I get work. Sometimes this has been tangential to my role within an organization, and sometimes it is central. I’ve had instances where the hiring executive is more than competent and capable to do the work themselves that they are awarding to me. Sometimes, it is a simple issue of capacity; they don’t have the time to engage in the work and perform the other aspects of their role. But I will always remember the enigmatic smile of one executive when they said, “I’m hiring you to deliver a message.”
The actual delivery of that message is its own challenge. It’s important to recognize that this takes planning, and it takes work. You are challenging perspectives that the organization holds as truths. Those truths have likely been reinforced by many executives in many circumstances. The consequence is that people within the organization fundamentally believe they are sacrosanct. As a result, they will not just internalize the need for themselves to not be a source of questioning or challenge the organization; they will also actively dissuade others from doing so as well.
What that means is that you’re not just taking on the challenging of a cultural truth; you are also taking on the people within the culture that defend that truth. Unwinding it and offering an alternative perspective takes persistence and effort. It starts with a progressive unravelling of the truth itself; that’s not starting with the assertion that it’s wrong, but allowing for the possibility that it’s not always right. It means introducing circumstances and identifying examples where an alternate truth might be available. It’s finding a gap where you might begin to insert a wedge.
The other side of that is about building up alternative viewpoints. This means beginning to introduce an alternative perspective, viewpoint or approach, and using it to highlight circumstances where it offers useful and relevant answers that the current approach or perspective does not. What you are doing is simultaneously building context and helping to demonstrate the limitations of what the organization has done to date. But you’re doing it in a way that allows those in the organization to come to the realization for themselves that there is an alternative view or a better way of deciding.
From there, you can start to more a actively question which approach leads to the best insights, or supports a specific decision. Once you allow that there are multiple tools available, different perspectives become possible. Once they have more than just a hammer, not everything quite so strongly resembles a nail anymore. From there, better insight becomes possible, and previously held narrow truths start to broaden their perspective.
This might sound long and time consuming. And you would be right; it is. It takes time to shift perspectives. More importantly, it takes time for people to let go of beliefs that give them comfort—no matter how unfounded those beliefs might have been. Ripping that comfort away doesn’t drop the blinds from their eyes and give them objectivity and understanding; it just makes them angry and resentful.
So how does this apply in the NASA scenario, where a critical last-minute decision is being made? Exactly the same way. It is an unfortunate truth that the decision that was made on the night of 27 January 1986 was inevitable. The system had at that point been designed expressly to get to “yes” and suppress all possibilities of “no.” The opportunity for a different answer had its roots twelve months earlier, when the problem first revealed itself. Before the possibility of successfully resolving the problem was shut down and suppressed. Before a wrong truth became adopted and accepted as given.
Eleventh-hour decisions rarely appear out of the blue; they become eleventh-hour decisions because the culture has avoided confronting an alternative viewpoint until it is literally too late. Getting in front of those decisions and de-escalating them is the only proven strategy in the long-term for being able to avert and prevent catastrophic consequences. That requires leadership, foresight, conscience and advocacy. It means we have to be playing a long game, and we need to be doing it for all the right reasons.