Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 16;   April 16, 2014: Design Errors and Groupthink

Design Errors and Groupthink

by

Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launch

Ice on the launch pad on January 28, 1986, the day of the last Challenger Launch (STS-51-L). The unusually cold weather was well beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals of the solid rocket boosters were approved, and it most likely caused the O-ring failure that led to the Challenger loss. Groupthink probably provides a solid explanation for the flawed launch decision, but it can do much more. The string of decisions that led to the design of the space shuttle itself might also have benefited from scrutiny from the perspective of groupthink. Even more important, though, is the organizational design of NASA. There was a belief both inside NASA and out that it was an elite organization that always got things right. That belief is one of the fundamental characteristics that makes groups and organizations susceptible to groupthink. Only after the loss of Challenger did the question of the design of NASA come into focus. See, for example, Howard S. Schwartz, Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay, New York University Press, 1992. (Order from Amazon.com) Photo by Michael Hahn, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Design is the articulation of intent to achieve a goal, including plans for executing that intention. We're engaged in design whenever we devise products, services, procedures, tests, policies, legislation, campaigns — just about anything in the modern knowledge-oriented workplace. And when we design, we risk error. Our design might not achieve all we hoped, or it might not achieve the goal at all. Or we might discover that the goal we were aiming for isn't what we actually wanted. So much can go wrong that attaining even a measured success sometimes feels thrilling.

Design errors are more common than we imagine. When a system produces disappointing results, we cannot always distinguish design errors from user errors or implementation errors. And we don't always know whether the system was being used in an environment for which it was designed. That's why we sometimes mistakenly attribute system failures to something other than design error, even when design errors played a role.

Because we usually use the term error for undesirable outcomes, the language we use to describe design errors carries connotations that limit our thinking. For this discussion, we use error to mean merely unintended as opposed to unintended and unfavorable. With this in mind, when a design "goes wrong" we mean that it didn't achieve the goal, or that we discovered an even more desirable goal. We must therefore classify as design errors those exciting surprises that bring welcome results. Typically, we take credit for these as if we intended them, but their sources are often simple design errors.

The Design errors are more
common than we imagine
kind of design errors I find most fascinating are those that arise from the way humans think and interact. Let's begin with one of the most famous of group biases, groupthink.

Groupthink happens when groups fail to consider a broad enough range of alternatives, risks, interpretations, or possibilities. Groups are at elevated risk of groupthink if they aren't diverse enough, or lack sufficient breadth of experience, or feel infallible, or want to preserve their elite status, or have an excessive desire for order.

For example, if an elite review team is pressed for time and must review two designs — one by an elite development team, and one by a less accomplished team, it might decide to do a less-than-thorough job on the work of the elite development team so as to make time for careful review of the work of the less-accomplished development team. Because the review team values its reputation for getting work done on time, and because it feels an affinity for the elite developers, an error in the elite developers' work can squeeze through. That might not be a bad thing, of course. Some design errors produce favorable outcomes. Such beneficial errors are rare, but we ought not dismiss the possibility out of hand.

We'll continue next time with an examination of more group biases.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Design Errors and Group Biases  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenUfGQHaAbvsczPodWner@ChacZfPIHWeBCCSyJrwUoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A sandwich piled highWorking Lunches
To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
An aircraft armament technician pushes a 500-pound toolbox to an A-10 at Whiteman Air Force BaseTen Tactics for Tough Times: II
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part II of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
The Stevens Memorial Library in Ashburnham, MassachusettsTake Charge of Your Learning
Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret)Call in the Right Expert
When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Srinivasa RamanujanLinear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A shark of unspecified speciesComing May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
Jump ball in a game of basketballAnd on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenojeBZdvkIuoQzAunner@ChacxLNpItXXYRdPHnjzoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.