The Dangers of Googlethink

As a child of the 80s, the definitive historical event of my young life was the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger.

To this day, I can remember exactly the circumstances when I heard the news: I was a senior in high school, sitting in Ms. Figley’s anatomy and physiology class, when Mr. Davis–a revered teacher who had been at the school for what seemed like forever–opened the door and told all of us, “The space shuttle just blew up.” My classmates were stunned. Nobody knew what to say. In reality, there really wasn’t anything to say. As American kids, we had simply taken for granted the amazing technology that lifted human beings into space. To us, the liftoffs had almost become routine. Nobody had ever considered the possibility of catastrophic failure–and yet it had happened, and when it did every single one of us was shaken to the core.

Years later, I found out that the Challenger disaster was anything but unpredictable–that NASA managers had, in fact, been aware of the defects in engineering that caused one of the solid rocket boosters to malfunction. They also knew the dangers of launching in extremely cold weather, but gave the go-ahead even though temperatures on the pad had dipped below 22 degrees. So why did seven astronauts have to die? An investigation into the disaster revealed the answer: NASA’s management culture had become so insulated, an atmosphere of groupthink had taken hold in the decision-making process. Because there had never been a major failure before, it was simply assumed there could never be one. And with all of the checks and backups in place, it was also assumed that that failure of one system would be compensated for by another. In short, everybody thought that everybody else knew what they were doing–and nobody wanted to be the boat rocker who caused launch delays by raising concerns about how rubber rings got brittle when the weather was really cold.

NASA learned its lesson and changed its practices, but just temporarily. Seventeen years later, while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed when hot gases penetrated the silica tiles on the leading edge of the port side wing, causing a massive structural failure that tore the ship apart. The subsequent investigation determined that the tiles had been damaged during launch, when a chunk of insulating foam broke away from the big external fuel tank and struck the wing at high speed. Again, the investigation revealed that NASA was fully aware of the dangers of foam strikes, and that flight engineers knew that the wing might have sustained damage grave enough to put the ship in danger–but they chose not to alert the crew, or have them inspect the wing. Groupthink had taken hold yet again, and seven more lives were lost as a result.

So how does all this relate to Google? Well, the company is currently dealing with a disaster of its own–one that should have been entirely predictable, and yet took them completely by surprise. It all started innocuously enough, with a memo posted on an internal message board by James Damore, one of Google’s engineers. In it, Damore pointed out flaws in the company’s efforts to recruit more women for technical positions, stating that these programs were themselves discriminatory and not very effective. Damore’s real sin, however, was in pointing out that perhaps biological differences could account for some of the disparity in the number of women who pursue technical careers. He also linked to scientific research that supported his point, and said that while he also values diversity, he thought that Google would be more successful in attracting female employees if it took into account some of these innate characteristics. The company’s leftist culture, however, made it next to impossible to even discuss such matters–a problem that Damore said was holding Google back from achieving its goals.

For that, he was terminated.

Now, Google is weathering a firestorm of criticism for retaliating against an employee for raising concerns in a private forum about the company’s employment practices. Moreso, the incident has also exposed that–in spite of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity efforts–the company still employs far more men than women. This, in turn, has led to the possibility that over 60 women will file a class-action lawsuit against Google for sexist hiring practices. Damore, meanwhile, is contemplating a lawsuit of his own, stating that his rights to voice concerns about workplace conditions under California law have been violated.

Oh, and Damore’s former colleagues at Google? In a Blind poll, half of them think he shouldn’t have been fired.

What a mess. One, by the way, entirely of Google’s own making. It could have been avoided, though, if there was just one person in management who could have looked and Damore’s memo and realized that he was raising valid points–that Google really does have a monolithic culture, and that this attitude could be preventing them from seeing potential solutions to its problems. Unfortunately, because of self-selection, all the higher-ups at Google think exactly the same way. Not only that, their groupthink is ruthlessly enforced–so there was nobody around to stop them from making such a foolish, self-destructive move.

There’s a lesson in there for Google, assuming their management is willing to learn it.

false