Context Matters, Take It Into Account

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Since I’ve been involved with leader development and teaching strategy, I’ve been interested in learning how NASA was able to build a system to mobilize teams to meet President Kennedy’s vision to “send a man to the moon and return him safely within a decade”.  In 1969, Sayles and Chandler wrote Managing Large Systems to show how it built an organizational structure to accomplish what many thought would be impossible. Today, I teach my students that it’s one of four organizational models organizations today use, called Matrix Management.

So you can imagine how excited I was when someone shared with me Charles Pellerin’s How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft Skills for Scientists, Engineers, and Project Teams. Once again, someone is sharing a “technology” that was used by NASA and is now can be used by any smart company that wants to understand how to increase the effectiveness of teams. What’s especially interesting is that the “4-D System” technology is being used to help teams will large proposals – by recognizing what the buyer’s team is looking for and organizing the potential contractor’s proposal to resonate with what they want.  However, in this blog, I want to focus on the journey Pellerin took to discover the technology, since it’s equally important!

In 1990, the US launched the Hubble telescope. Pellerin had been heading the development team for eight years. Their joy was short-lived as the world soon discovered that Hubble telescope had a flawed mirror, and was useless. Then, when I thought things could not get any worse, the Failure Review Board announced that the root cause was a “leadership failure”, which meant he would be held responsible for one of the biggest screw-ups in the history of science. Yet, because he wasn’t actually involved with that of the program, nobody blamed him.  He was put in charge of a repair mission, and it was successful.

His investigation of the source of the problem identified that it was a social context shortfall, not a lack of engineering expertise, that was the cause the problem.  He discovered that the (main) source of the problem was the NASA managers relentless criticized and pressured contractors who were doing actual work – under tight budget and time limited. “The contractors, operating from a place of relative powerlessness, engaged in guerrilla tactics by withholding troubling information.” A crow of technicians had turned a cradle holding the satellite on its side, not realizing that another crew had removed the fastening bolts beneath it. they ignored a procedure  to verify that the bolts were in place.  Lockheed Martin investigated the episode and concluded that the “culture was the root cause”: the operations team’s lack of discipline in following procedures evolved from complacent attitudes toward routine spacecraft handling, poor communications and coordination.”

Does this example of the power of a social context to create disasters sound familiar?  Remember the O-ring problems that were the cause of the Challenger disaster? The information was there, but was not properly reported. The context is the main culprit in plane crashes in bad weather, Gladwell tells us in Outliers, because tired pilots are rushing and going through a series of communication breakdowns; a typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors, not of knowledge or flying skills, but of teamwork and communication.  Finally, Pellirin reminds us that between 1988 and 1998 Korean Air was crashing at a rate of 17 times the industry average. Investigators found the cause was the social context in the cockpit: the Captain’s social status was so high, junior officers only communicated obliquely and deferentially – essentially leaving the captain as the sole flier.  Modern jets require a team of two or three “equals” – with the result that Korean Air’s record now is the same as the industry as a whole.

The heart of Pellerin’s 4-D system is that the context in which teams communicate makes all the difference. The effectiveness of communications is a function of how one group’s leadership style differs from that of another leadership group within a particular context. Using psychological concepts which also form the basis for DISC assessments of how individuals interact with others, 4-D focuses on how teams communicate with other teams.

Understanding that leaders vary in terms of whether they make decisions (a) logically or emotionally, and (b) by sensing or intuiting information, he arrives at 4 key dimensions:

  • Visioning (thinking & intuiting), needing to be the best/ smartest.
  • Directing (thinking & sensing), taking organized action and direct others toward results
  • Cultivating (feeling & intuiting), appreciating and caring for others, making the world better
  • Including (feeling & sensing), including others, bringing integrity to relationships and building teams.

For instance, if one group is focused on visioning a new approach to solve a problem and your group’s proposal focuses on the technical details of how the current system could be made to work (directing), you are likely to lose to another team that is pitching a new visioning solution.

If you’re interested in learning more about how the 4-D system today helps organizations of all levels avoid communication problem and increases the chances of groups making presentations that win deals, you can either read the book, visit the website (, or speak to us on our new workshop designed to put this technology in the hands of Vistage members!

hgh before and after