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Columbia's Final Mission

Making the right decisions in times of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty

Executive Summary


Business leaders today are faced with a myriad of diverging priorities and difficult decisions.  Sometimes those decisions need to be made swiftly, on partial information, where truth can become blurred and the “right thing” to do is no longer clear.


But what if those decisions were under the utmost pressure, where the lives of 7 astronauts depended upon you seeing technical truth, moral certainty and the right course of action?  What if it really was “rocket science” you were dealing with?


Columbia’s Final Mission gives delegates the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of senior leaders at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who were faced with the toughest decisions imaginable and didn’t get them right.





“This is the most impactful workshop we have ever run for our Senior Management team. It really enabled the group to discuss the hidden issues both in the systems and between the people that can prevent performance at work.” - HR Director, Parsons Brinckerhoff



“As a consequence of participating in the case study with customised facilitation we created a new fit for future leadership agenda by unlocking new insights about our business practices which ultimately created new ways of working.” - Managing Partner, Vail Williams 



“This is without doubt the most engaging and impactful workshop I have ever been part of. The feedback has been fantastic, we have run the workshop in several geographies with multiple cohorts. The ability to look through several layers of complexity to sense check our leadership and management practices has proven invaluable.” - Executive Director, JP Morgan 



“The immersive nature of this workshop is unique. It delivers a wide range of outputs and was customised to meet our development needs. A truly memorable and very effective leadership and management development experience.” - Head of Learning and Development, Ordnance Survey


“This workshop clearly demonstrates the fragile nature of human endeavour working in complex environments and how both systems and behaviours can cause very unintended outcomes. A very evocative workshop with gritty discussions and very compelling outcomes.” - Director, RNLI




On January  16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin its 113th mission.  Upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere 15 days later, the shuttle disintegrated, resulting in the deaths of all 7 astronauts that were on board.  The resulting investigation found that the cause of the accident was due to foam insulation from the external fuel tank breaking off and  forming debris which damaged the shuttle's wing. This happened 81 seconds after the original mission launch and was immediately detected by the mission control team.  The problem of "debris shedding" was well known but considered "acceptable" by NASA management.



This immersive half-day workshop, using an innovative Harvard Business School multi-media case study, will allow delegates to explore the factors that led to this tragic accident and develop real insight into how the lessons learnt can be applied to any Company’s approaches to culture, accountability, risk and decision making.  Typical areas of exploration include:

  • Organisational culture

  • Historical legacy

  • Decision making

  • Organisational structure, systems and processes

  • External political and scheduling pressure

  • Dysfunctional senior team working 

  • Communication behaviours

  • Leadership and management failures

  • Failure around risk management

  • Uncertainty and complexity

  • Ambiguity and dilemma

  • Mind-sets, perceptions and assumptions

  • Ethics, values and beliefs

  • Judgements and choices

The session will close with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board conclusions. 

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