Critical Decision Making – The NASA Way

NASA has experienced more than its share of crises. As a uniquely super-high-risk organisation, how does it manage those critical ‘Go or No-Go’ decisions to reduce the risk and avert the potential for crisis? What can business leaders and crisis management teams learn from NASA?


In my desk drawer I keep a variety of short reflections on crisis management.  One of the cuttings is from the official report of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in February 2003*, “Perhaps even more challenging ……. are the cultural changes required (within NASA).  The Board’s view is that cultural problems are unlikely to be corrected without top-level leadership.  Such leadership will have to rid the system of practices and patterns that have been validated simply because they have been around so long.”

Take a good look at that last sentence and critically examine its implications.

This quote alone had a profound affect on my career and the development of my thoughts on leadership, especially crisis leadership.

The Report of the Board continues, “Such factors interfere with open communication, impede the sharing of lessons learned …………… and prompt resistance to external advice”.

Change was not just necessary (‘necessary’ doesn’t mean it will happen), change was demanded and the change itself would be continuously and rigorously scrutinised.  


So, what has changed?  What does the contemporary NASA narrative tell us of its decision making process, risk appetite and its quest for safety?

Yesterday I tuned in to an interview with Professor Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA.  His full title is Associate Administrator – Science Mission Directorate.  It’s a bit of a mouthful.  Put simply, he is a rocket scientist and the man that makes the final decision for the launch of a NASA mission.  Big stuff, huge responsibility.  

Photography: NASA

Professor Zurbuchen offered some gems on risk and accountability.  Importantly, he also reflected on why the procedures he follows are just as applicable to business as they are to launching rockets.  I consider his observations equally relevant for crisis management.

Here are some of his thoughts, the link to the full interview is given below:

“….be well informed with all the scrutiny up front”

“I put in the room the best people I know.  I’m not the most important person I’m just the one who has to make the final decision”  (Crisis leaders take particular note)

“I would be a fool not to listen to the others in the room”

“I scrutinize the team and require them to scrutinize each other”

And this is my favourite ……….. “Are they making mistakes?  I don’t care if they make mistakes but are they stupid mistakes or repeat mistakes that we didn’t learn from first time around?”  (from minute 39:30 if you only want to listen to the piece on decision making).

*If you have the time, take a look at the full report.  For anyone involved in safety, risk or crisis management the content is gold dust.  The document is well laid out in sections on the NASA website