Epfini / Insights / The Role of AI in De-Risking Leadership

Boeing Shows Leadership Group-Think is a Spiral to Disaster

The evidence points to group-think as a leading cause of the Boeing 737Max disaster.

When group-think takes hold in an organisation, the possibility of exploring alternative actions or ideas is gone. And in the case of the 737 Max the verdict is clear. As stated in a recent media investigation, Boeing’s own test pilots were largely kept outside the development of the MCAS anti stall system.

“Boeing knew the engine design and placement would make the aircraft pitch up, with an increased risk of stalling especially at low speed,” a Boeing insider said. “But we were too close to certification to change the design.”  

And despite all the damning evidence of the 737 Max’s software flaw, Boeing’s embattled CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, is still standing by the plane and Boeing’s record.

The path from group-think to disaster is also evidenced in the 1986 Challenger space-shuttle disaster, which seems almost a model for the Boeing business failure.

Challenger exploded 73 seconds after its launch — just a day after engineers from Morton Thiokol, the company that built the solid rocket boosters, warned NASA leadership that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets would fail in the freezing temperatures forecast for the launch morning. The O-rings were not designed for anything below 11 degrees Celsius. NASA leadership was under huge pressure from government and the satellite companies (whose communications satellites they were launching). Several missed launch windows due to weather increased that pressure.

NASA leadership in turn put pressure on flight managers — and the scientific facts presented by the Morton Thiokol engineers were pushed aside. Witnesses stated that when the flight reviewers received the go-ahead for launch, no mention was made of Morton Thiokol’s objections. The shuttle launched as scheduled; the subsequent disaster that killed seven astronauts has gone down in history as an example of the fatal consequences of group-think.

Group-think has been the cause of many business failures and actual disasters. Leadership have ignored information or convinced themselves through blind consensus that their decisions are right (come what may); while ignoring skilled and knowledgeable individuals who try to warn them of impending catastrophe. From the sinking of the Titanic through to the Columbia tragedy, the Deep Water Horizon Gulf of Mexico disaster, and most recently the tailings dam collapses in Brazil, group-think has been a major route to catastrophe.  

Examples of group-think can be seen closer to home among business leaders who justify undoubtedly offensive and inappropriate actions. Just such an example was seen when the Board of Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure decided to award the CEO a bonus following a preventable incident that resulted in the deaths of four visitors on a fair-ground ride. The board clearly failed to measure the PR risk against such an action that appeared to place the financial well-being of the CEO over the welfare and lives of their customers.  

Today, the prevalence for group-think is ever stronger and more threatening. Free speech and open disagreement are being quashed in traditional hotbeds of healthy dissent and constructive debate.

As this trend marches through the institutions, former bastions of free thinking are now becoming places where anything other than group-think is shunned — or even actively banned. This extends to board rooms and even around the watercooler.  What ensues is the breakdown of innovation and creativity.

Challenging a culture of group-think takes courage and tenacity — but above all, proof. Any challenge needs evidence that isn’t merely based on one person’s opinion (which can be shut down in an instant by a dominant mass). What is needed is proof that is unequivocal and not subject to deliberate misinterpretation.

Data, information and evidence are the keys to this challenge. And now more than ever, their importance is crucial. But using intelligent information intelligently is crucial. The data must be unbiased. It must, in effect, be pure and untainted by the surrounding noise and political environment.  

It has to ‘speak’ above the din of group-think and must therefore be delivered in a straightforward way without confusion. It is the best solution to halt the disaster spiral.