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April 16, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 16
 
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Design Errors and Groupthink

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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 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
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