Cultures with requisite imagination
Ron Westrum has explored the effectiveness of organizations in developing large systems, and he emphasized the importance of organizational culture. He argued for a culture of conscious inquiry to ensure safety, where individuals and groups actively observe, inquire, and voice concerns. Westrum described the impact of organizational culture on information flow and presented a spectrum of organizations ranging from pathological (avoiding information) to generative (welcoming new ideas).
The Hubble Space Telescope case study highlights the dangers of a "single-thread" design and emphasizes the need for requisite imagination and effective communication within organizations to avoid catastrophic failures in large technical projects.
Westrum suggests a "license to think" in highly effective organizations: encouraging individuals to engage in creative thinking, with a focus on the organization's receptivity to new ideas. For instance, Admiral Percy Scott's directive to welcome ideas from line officers and Wernher von Braun's commitment to facilitating information flow. Westrum emphasizes the importance of honesty, openness, and a culture that encourages lower-ranking individuals to take corrective actions and admit mistakes without fear of retaliation. The license to think may sometimes be restricted or incomplete.
Pop-out programs in organizations, nurture doubt and encourage individuals to express ideas and highlight problems. Like in metallurgy's decoration, where contrasts between materials become visible, in organizations, doubts and problems should surface and become visible. Mechanisms that facilitate pop-out are multiple entry points, augmentation of resources for further research, spontaneous independent action, open forums, and surveys.
User feedback is important in the verification and validation of new equipment. A case study of the Bjork-Shiley heart valve tragedy stresses the significance of heeding danger signals and the need for a well-conceived feedback system to identify problems earlier in the design process.
Maestros, or high-level leaders, are significant in shaping organizational cultures that favor inquiry and effective operations. Top management, through exemplary behavior, sets the tone for the entire organization. Maestros are physically and psychologically present, actively involved in operations, and have a broad attention span to handle multiple issues concurrently.
The construction of the Crystal Palace in 1851, led by Charles Fox, is presented by Westrum as a successful example where the maestro's commitment, interdisciplinary collaboration, transparent testing, and attention to detail contributed to the project's success. In contrast, the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907 is cited by Westrum as a failure of leadership: Theodore Cooper's absence, resistance to additional checks, and casual attitudes towards problems led to a catastrophic outcome.
The influence of maestros is significant but limited: While L. Stanley Crane's strived to reform Conrail and made the organization profitable, certain personnel problems persisted, revealing the constraints of a maestro's influence in certain aspects of organizational culture.
So, Westrum emphasizes the importance of imaginative inquiry and openness in organizations to prevent and address potential problems. Effective organizations cultivate a culture of openness, granting their members a "license to think" and empowering them to explore potential issues. The use of various "pop-out programs" ensures that problems are surfaced and addressed promptly. These organizations avoid relying on a single-thread design process and employ measures, including outside groups, to verify and validate systems under development.
The Naval Weapons Center at China Lake is cited by Westrum as an example of an organization with legitimate authority, acting as an effective monitor by demanding accurate drawings, ultimately resulting in greater control, lower prices, and better quality.
Westrum also suggests the value of involving "dirty-minded" individuals who specialize in anticipating and testing potential failures.
The conclusion underscores the role of technology maestros—leaders with high standards and broad attention spans—in building cultures with requisite imagination. Successful programs often have maestros, while unsuccessful programs usually lack such influential leaders. Westrum encourages further inquiry into the role of maestros in shaping organizational cultures.
Source: Westrum, R. (1993), Cultures with requisite imagination, in: Verification and Validation of Complex Systems: Human Factors Issues, ed. Wise, J.A., Hopkins, V.D., and Stager, P., Berlin: Springer Verlag.