The Wisdom of Teams
“Nobody is perfect but a team can be” — Meredith Belbin
The book “The Wisdom of Crowds”[i] includes many case studies including finding a missing nuclear submarine, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Stock Market bubbles. To students of leadership, the loss of the NASA space shuttle Columbia in February 2003 (STS 107) should be of particular interest.
The author describes the dynamic between the Mission Management Team (MMT) and the Debris Assessment Team (DAT), the latter having responsibility for informing the MMT about damage sustained from foam debris impact with the silica tiles which formed the thermal heat shield during launch. This damage had occurred several times during previous shuttle launches. NASA managers[ii] believed that nothing could be done if damage was detected. As a result they conducted parametric analysis rather than inspecting and assessing the actual damage on the shuttle. Transcripts of MMT meetings[iii] show that during the meeting on 21st January 2003 the DAT reported “significant damage” on previous Shuttle missions but the MMT Leader responded “I don’t think there is much we can do, so you know its not really a factor during the flight cause there isn’t much we can do about it …”
In other words the MMT Manager had decided, and decided for everyone else in the meeting, that the damage was inconsequential[iv]. The MMT had refused to authorise imagery[v] to confirm the damage. The team had made the decision before looking at the evidence.
The author posits that the “crowd” (read this as your team/group) will always come up with a better solution than even the smartest individual/s in the team provided the following caveats are met –
1. diversity of opinion;
4. a means of information aggregation.
The MMT Leader was someone who had been praised for her intellect and, being NASA, one can safely assume everyone else in the team was highly intelligent. By not observing these caveats the performance of the MMT was “an object lesson in how NOT to run a small group” and “a powerful demonstration in the way in which, instead of making people wiser, being in in a group can actually make them dumber”.
[ii] Columbia Accident Investigation Board
[iv] Email traffic from the MMT Leader to the DAT the following day and the exchange at the subsequent meeting on 24th January 2003 reinforced this confirmation bias.
[v] “Engineers made three separate requests for Department of Defense (DOD) imaging of the shuttle in orbit to more precisely determine damage. While the images were not guaranteed to show the damage, the capability existed for imaging of sufficient resolution to provide meaningful examination. NASA management did not honor the requests and in some cases intervened to stop the DOD from assisting.” — Wikipedia