Mission to the Moon 4: It’s not important whose fault it is

I missed the release of the second season of the BBC World Service’s “Thirteen Minutes to the Moon.”

I’m catching up on it now.

The first season – about the Apollo 11 Moon Landing – is very good.

I ended up writing a short sequence of blog posts about what I felt I’d learned from it, which came down to the advantages of leaders devolving problems to those closest to them and then removing obstacles which make these difficult to solve.

The second series – about the rescue of the doomed Apollo 13 – is even better.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Apollo 13 was supposed to land on the moon. Things went badly wrong after an explosion set off a chain of associated problems that quickly ruled out any possibility of a moon landing and then made the survival of the astronauts on board deeply improbable.

The facts – perhaps dulled a little by time and familiarity – are terrifying.

Hundreds of thousands of miles from home drifts a stricken tin can with barely any power, air or water. It is lost. It doesn’t even know which direction it is pointing in. It can’t use its telescopes to get bearings on stars because the whole dying ship is surrounded by a shroud of frozen glittering leaking gas. There is so little fuel left any burn of the rockets must be measured in tenths of a second.

Nobody – on board or in mission control in Houston – has trained for anything like this. There are no manuals or procedures and even if they existed there probably wouldn’t be enough time to consult them properly. Every minute decisions need to be made.

To be blunt and to steal a phrase from one of the Flight Commanders – the team is in ‘deep shit.’

While few of us working in schools have to endure such extreme challenges with stakes quite so high, we do know what it is to be under a very high amount of pressure in circumstances that feel untenable. This could be a spate of resignations leaving a maths department with no teachers or dramatically lower than expected GCSE results. It could be an Ofsted inspection calling into question things leaders had never questioned or it could be the sudden realisation a key piece of work such as arranging an options process simply hadn’t been done.

It could be lots of things.

When things like this happen in schools we can see very defensive reactions. Often – too often – at the point at which a crisis is most acute time and energy is used up by people trying to prove whatever has gone wrong is not their fault.

The Apollo 13 team mission was completely unconcerned with who to blame.

Whose fault the explosion was just wasn’t talked about. At all.

Instead, everyone involved focused on fixing the problems.

I think this goes beyond the immediacy of the situation at hand. It feels more like an embedded culture than it does a response to a particular crisis. It’s possible to see this in how sub-teams and individuals are so quick to give way when they think others have a better chance of coming up with a solution. You get the sense that defensiveness or concern with individual status just wouldn’t be compatible with being part of the team at all.

For NASA at that point it was not important to know who was to blame. Trying to find out would be a waste of time and effort.

None of this – of course – means that those working for NASA did not have to be accountable for anything. Nobody puts human beings into space and brings them back without clear goals and an expectation these will be achieved. I am certain underperformance was not tolerated. When things went wrong a great deal of time and effort afterwards went into finding out what, why and how to prevent similar problems occurring again.

What NASA did understand was that it was trying to do extraordinarily complicated things and any fixation on finding one cause– for example a mistake by one individual – would be to distort the truth and reductively limit the scope of what could be learned.

This is quite logical – if the answer to a complicated problem is artificially simplified – as in one person’s incompetence – then the investigation into it will stop at improving or sacking them, which then misses important learning points about why the person made the mistake they did, why it wasn’t picked up on and how the organisation could avoid putting someone else in a position that makes messing up more likely.

Like missions to space schools are very complicated and when things go wrong the reason isn’t usually down to one person’s mistakes. Too often in my career I’ve seen schools fail to recognise this and how this – like the explosion in Apollo 13 – creates a cascade of other problems. For example, a decline in GCSE results in one subject could be down to timetable changes, changes to staffing, a deterioration in general behaviour as much as it is down to the subject leader; to blame the subject leader would be to miss other necessary improvements and so make better results in the future less likely. It would also incentivise the subject leader to pass the blame on elsewhere and look to minimise their own culpability, which makes it less likely they’d improve at the things they genuinely needed to.

It also sets a dangerous momentum with staff learning survival – necessary in some contexts – is dependent on never admitting to mistakes or tolerating vulnerability. This can be a very hard mode of thought to break

Working somewhere that culturally doesn’t look to blame people –  as I am lucky enough to do now  – makes it much easier to improve. In such cultures energy goes into how to do stuff better, not wasted in things like desperately searching deleted emails for evidence you really did ask that person to do that thing that wasn’t done and is now a big problem.

This seems pretty obvious and clear, which invites questions as to why schools don’t always work like this. To just blame leaders for being mean and creating toxic environments would be to fall into the blame game again. It would be far more productive and useful to look at why some leaders are prone to making overly simple judgements and applying accountability measures in crude ways. This – almost certainly – is partially a result of the very blunt accountability measures placed upon schools and how our system responds to a failure to meet these. It may also often be a result of leaders simply not knowing enough to question their own hot-takes and generic leadership models which privilege fast decisive decision making as a virtue in of itself. It’s my hope the new suite of NPQs helps with this.

There are probably a lot of other reasons too.

But it doesn’t change the most important lesson from Apollo 13.

In complicated situations it is not good practice to spend a lot of time working out whose fault something is. There isn’t enough time and we don’t have enough energy. Schools should first try to work out how to fix problems then – later – find all the causes of the issue to create a stronger organisation less vulnerable to similar mistakes again.

My bet would be many schools – indeed many organisations in general – would find blame culture itself a major obstacle.

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