Editor's Desk | Fight the Slack

Tom Temin

The recent annual Information Processing Interagency Conference featured an astronaut as a speaker. Seeing that on the agenda, I thought, do they still have astronauts? The astronauts' heyday ended with 8-track tapes, or thereabouts.

But this guy was different. Mike Mullane, retired Space Shuttle crewmember, was critical of NASA, frank, profane and direct. More like the fighter aviator he had been than the sanitized Rotary Club-pleasing presenters I usually associate with astronauts. He wrote a book about his life with NASA that is even more critical, frank, profane and direct than his speech. Riding Rockets'it's a good read.

His main message is that, too often, individuals and organizations give way to 'normalization of deviance.' That is, we accept results below our own specs, then wonder what happened when disaster strikes. The prime example for NASA was the loss of not one but two shuttles. The causes differed, but the acceptance of what should have been unacceptable'burned O-rings or tiles repeatedly falling off'was common to both incidents.

Normalization of deviance isn't always so life threatening or majesterial. But it regularly ruins projects, teams, budgets, relationships. In a word, results. It can wreak havoc on programs. Some examples that come to mind:

  • Accepting software defects as a fact of life
  • Being nonchalant or fatalistic about missed deadlines
  • Casually allowing repeated change orders. Ditto for contractors who fail to challenge change orders, figuring the meter is running, so what the heck
  • Accepting cost overruns
  • Not being realistic about staff required to handle large and complex programs.

It is hard work to resist normalizing deviancy. Like detailed planning, it's natural to avoid it because it's hard, and the consequences are often delayed or hidden. But the results are predictable'a never-delivered FBI case management system, a stillborn America's Shield, a planned Army reconnaissance plane that's too heavy to fly.

Fight it.

Thomas R. Temin, Editor in chief

E-mail: [email protected]


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