Dr. Elizabeth Pate-Cornell identified the problems with lost insulating tiles 10 years before the destruction of the Columbia. In both cases, the warnings were ignored.
The underlying problem here is a particularly human one. Even with all the tools of logic, computers and risk management, we often make irrational decisions. That we do with great frequency was studied by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their work proved this so effectively that it won them the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
One does not need to read their hundreds of studies to understand where we go wrong when making decisions regarding risk. Anyone who has worked for a large organization has firsthand experience of the subtle and not so subtle pressures exerted by political, cultural and personal forces. The messenger delivering bad news is often summarily shot.
People working toward a goal tend to value a positive, can-do attitude. Those who have become emotionally invested in a project or activity tend to consider the suggestion that the project is a bad idea to be a personal attack. Anyone who speaks up and says, "This could end in disaster," has to be brave because they are likely to receive an angry response. Imagine how dissenters at Enron Corp., Worldcom or NASA were treated. None of them was promoted for pointing out potential risks.
This is where risk managers have value. We are hired to identify potential problems--to call bad ideas bad ideas. This is not to say we have to be correct. We merely need to open dialogues that others dare not.
This dialog is absolutely necessary to a healthy organization. It is the reason that the Founding Fathers added the First Amendment. It is why we have whistleblower protection laws. Healthy organizations, teams and people invite dissenting opinions.
The risk manager does not bear all of the responsibility; others in the organization must, at the very least, be willing to listen and discuss potential problems. As soon as people attack the messenger, a cultural signal is sent out that anyone not willing to engage in groupthink, anyone who raises a contrarian opinion, will be shouted down and punished. The result is that people learn to go along with the crowd and remain silent about even obvious risks.
I have experienced this in various settings. Never was this quite so obvious as after the article I wrote on the wisdom of building in disaster areas like New Orleans. I received many e-mails. Many were supportive, but a disturbing number simply contained vulgarities that cannot be reprinted here. The general message of these missives was, "How dare you say anything that disagrees with what I believe? You should be silenced and punished." Some actually tried to mete out that punishment.
Attempting to shout down, insult, intimidate and silence anyone who expresses an idea contrary to one's own is simply dangerous. I am sure that those raising questions at NASA, Enron and other organizations received roughly the same treatment.
We as risk managers have a duty to openly discuss risks no matter how unpopular that makes us. It takes courage to do so. But even if one hasn't the courage to speak up, the very least one can do is refrain from helping to silence the messenger.
BEAUMONT VANCE is the risk management columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He manages risk for Sun Microsystems Inc.
February 14, 2008
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