Innovation, diversity and the Columbia space shuttle disaster

Salvador Aragón. Professor. IE Business School

28 November 2014

The Columbia space shuttle disaster, and subsequent research into why it happened, provides a sad example of how diversity generates more ideas and innovative solutions.

On the first day of February, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated when it re-entered the atmosphere, causing the loss of the lives of the seven members of its crew. Subsequent investigations showed that the cause of the accident was the fact that a piece of foam that covered the external fuel tank had come off. The same problem had been detected in previous flights.

In spite of its seriousness, the diagnosis of the technical causes of the disaster were far less relevant than the organizational causes underlying the whole incident. These causes, in turn, hinged on a relation between diversity and innovation.

In response the question “does diversity favor innovation?” nine out of ten experts interviewed did not hesitate to say that it certainly does. In theory, a greater level of diversity makes it easier to find a better solution to a problem, given that it increases the number of alternative solutions proffered.

Unfortunately, the answer is not quite that simple. A high level of diversity in a group can make it impossible to reach an agreement, which puts paid to any chance of innovation. A highly homogeneous group, however, will tend to reach unanimous consensus, soviet style, thereby preventing any kind of alternative opinions.

In fact, in order to gauge the relation between diversity and innovation we have to answer two questions. The first is if diversity helps generate new ideas, and the second is if diversity fosters the implementation of said ideas.

Luckily, recent studies that straddle economy and psychology have come up with some of the answers. In order to understand them, we have to understand how each one of us goes about resolving a problem.

According to Professor Scott E. Page of Michigan University, each one of us values the reality that surrounds us through an individual combination of perspectives and interpretations. While the perspectives provide us with a specific map of reality, interpretations enable us to group things into categories, highlighting certain aspects while ignoring others. In simpler terms, in a given situation, each one of us not only has his or her own way of weighing it up, but we also view it through tinted glasses that strengthen some colors and diffuse others.

There have been numerous experiments that show that a diverse group that is capable of contributing different perspectives and interpretations is also capable of shedding light on a situation in a far richer way than an isolated individual or a homogenous group. In fact, the diverse group, although it may be comprised of normal individuals, generates better solutions than a group of brilliant but homogenous experts, provided that there is adequate communication among the group.

In the case of the Columbia catastrophe it was discovered that the technical problem that caused the accident had been observed on several previous occasions by relatively low-level engineers.  However, the group of managers who took the decision to launch the craft were missing the technical perspective, and focusing on what for them was more important, namely factors linked to  meeting the budget gaining prestige.

Not just that, one feature of the highly homogeneous decisionmaking group is a phenomenon that is closely linked to a lack of diversity – the co-called normalization of deviation. This describes how, when an error or problem is repeated again and again, homogenous groups tend to see it as being normal, without giving due consideration to the consequences.

The tragedy of the Columbia serves to confirm that diversity substantially improves the chances of being able to generate innovative ideas and solutions. But there another question remains unanswered: Does diversity help put innovation into practice? That is something we will be addressing at a later date.

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