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Avoiding "Go Fever" -- Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia

Oct. 25, 2012

One may think Baylor has little in common with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). However, both organizations have a organizational culture, some of which can affect the decision-making process, the topic of this Brief. Some of NASA's decision-making gave birth to the term "Go Fever"- pursuing a goal while downplaying, or even avoiding (ignoring), potential problems or risks. Go Fever can be the genesis of a legal argument that decisions made by an institution (and the individuals involved) are unreasonable or maybe even reckless.

The risk to Baylor and managers: Go Fever can be the right stuff to cause a tragedy. Baylor and individuals who cause a tragedy can be legally responsible to the injured persons. This is about more than mere compliance with what can't be done; this is about what should be done. Some decisions (like text messaging while driving) may be lawful but still be negligent or reckless (enough for a jury in McLennan County to impose a $21.8 million judgment on one driver who was texting while driving).

Here were some of the factors that contributed to the decision to launch the Challenger on that cold and unforgettable day:

• Tunnel vision to accomplish a goal while tuning out the risks (either intentionally or by culture).

• Group support for only a positive answer.

• Criticism and isolation of those who focus on the risk.

• Concerns about the risk expressed only horizontally in the organization because expression to the higher-ups was unacceptable.

• Belief that past successes justified a belief in a successful future.

• Disagreements managed by conflict avoidance.

• Preference for consensus above all else.

Here are some questions to consider in institutional decision-making and the answers to avoid, which are in parentheses:

• Has the decision-maker considered and weighed the risks under the circumstances? (No)

• Have the risks and circumstances been discounted based on presumptions or assumptions about the information without a thorough evaluation of the information? (Yes)

• Has the decision-maker considered alternative ways to accomplish the goal(s)? (No)

• If the decision-maker, or those making recommendations, were to be personally involved in the activity (like being on the shuttle), would the decision be the same? (No)

• If the decision-maker, or those making recommendations, were personally responsible for all the risk and the potential harm to others, would the decision be the same? (No)

• Do those involved complain to co-workers about the decision but support the decision to those higher up in the organization? (Yes)

• Does the decision-maker encourage disclosure of negative input? (No)

• Does negative input reach the decision-maker? (No)

• Have meetings leading to the decision been held without inviting those who may disagree with the goal or the particular way to achieve it? (Yes)

• Have current risks been discounted because of successes in the past? (Yes)

• Is the decision rationalized by anyone based on a need for consensus? (Yes)

As you can see from the Challenger decision process, Go Fever is contagious and can be deadly. Try to avoid it like the plague.