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Learning from Failure using Whole Brain® Thinking

by | Sep 17, 2018

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History has shown us repeatedly that great losses can also be great lessons. Never has this been more evident than the lessons learned from two of NASA’s most significant and tragic failures – the Hubble Space Telescope Mirror Flaw and the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster.

Recently, Herrmann held a thinker event at Fonterra Centre Auditorium in downtown Auckland led by guest speaker Joy Kuhns – an inside consultant for ELORET in the Space Technology Division at the NASA Ames Research Centre when these mission failures took place.

With the help of Whole Brain® Thinking and her close personal connection to these events, Joy crafted a workshop that allowed us to take a closer look at the mishaps of the Hubble and Columbia missions and where the gaps in thinking took place. Through this, we all left feeling better equipped to learn from our failures and approach future projects in a more holistic manner. 

Joy Kuhns, HR Manager, Sorted Logistics Limited

Joy Kuhns, HR Manager, Sorted Logistics Limited

Before diving into what we learned from Joy, let’s take a look at the brief history of these two monumental events.

The Hubble Space Telescope Mirror Flaw

Not long after the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990, operators uncovered that the observatory’s primary mirror had an aberration that affected the clarity of the telescope’s early images.

NASA quickly realised that fully replacing the mirror was not a practical option meaning the best solution was to build replacement instruments to fix the flaw. The corrective optics and new instruments were built and installed on Hubble by spacewalking astronauts during a shuttle mission in 1993.

The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

In February of 2013 the Columbia space shuttle broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. For over two years following the disaster NASA suspended space shuttle flights as it investigated the failings.

Ultimately, an investigation board determined that a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and breached the spacecraft wing. Research into the issue found that this foam breakage had been a recurring problem but was not addressed properly causing NASA to come under intense scrutiny in Congress and in the media.

How did we leverage our lessons?

Using Joy’s  first hand knowledge of these historical events and the relevant key findings from each investigation, attendees were encouraged to look at each issue and the underlying causes using a Whole Brain® approach.

Each table was given a set of sticky notes and a large Herrmann quadrant diagram. Using teamwork and the Whole Brain® model participants worked to pinpoint the gaps in thinking that caused these failures to occur. From there, each group came up with suggestions for improving the systems, cultures and processes that ultimately led to these two disasters.

For example, the fear culture within NASA was mentioned across the board. With high pressure to succeed, tight deadlines and no board oversight, employees at every level of the organisation were scared to report inconsistencies or failures. These oversights caused many legacy errors to go unreported – meaning bad data and poor predictive measures.

As a solution, many attendees suggested working internally to create a culture of accountability and transparency. Strategies to do this would include more focus on the red and some strong yellow-focused foresight to ensure long-term success.

Sitting down and using the four quadrants as a way to map gaps and tailor solutions ensures you can view things from a comprehensive perspective – putting your best foot forward as a result.

How can we learn from failure in business?

These lessons aren’t limited to NASA, businesses can apply a similar model of reflection to any past failures, and as a result create much more viable solutions.

As a part of the session Joy challenged everyone to come up with one problem in their organisation. Using the four quadrants we were challenged to solve this issue. After these individual brainstorming sessions groups across the room discussed challenges in their own organisations and in many cases found some cool new approaches to existing problems.

When you look at issues through the Whole Brain® lens, it gives you a 360° approach to solutions. You can tick off the various quadrants and ensure you are addressing every aspect of any given project.

Keen to learn more about thinking with a Whole Brain® lens?

If you’re looking for a better lens through which to view failures and turn them into lessons, Whole Brain® Thinking is for you. With the help of the four quadrants you’ll be able to gain a more holistic view of every project ensuring you are hitting all the right marks every time.

To learn more, reach out to the Herrmann team today!

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