Graham Birkenhead, January 28 2016

30 Years ago today (28 Jan 1986)

Thirty years ago today, I was travelling along the main street in Bar-le-Duc in North-eastern France in a small Renault 4 driven by a rather large Corsican. I remember the car leant slightly to the left with the distribution of weight. I was working in France at the time and still learning French and developing a strange mix of accents: fast Parisian accent for everyday use, a central accent for technical speak, and my friend and driver was teaching me argot – the highly essential art of swearing that is built into everyday communication.  It was a beautiful clear, if rather cold, sunny day.   I don't remember where I had come from or where I was going, I just remember the moment.  The push-button radio was playing; reception was not brilliant, but you could hear it.  I wasn’t paying too much attention when the news came on, but as the announcer spoke, the words that he spoke started to capture my attention and draw me in to what he was saying.  With my still limited understanding of French, I strained to make sense of what he said.  Even my friend Jean had stopped talking and when I asked him “Challenger has exploded?” he nodded and simply said “ Yes, I believe so…” 

I can’t usually remember things that I did last week, but that moment 30 years ago is still crystal clear – another JFK or 9/11 moment. 

I had wanted to be an astronaut since I was 4 years old when I heard my parents talking about the Gemini missions.  I assiduously followed the space program: the terrible launch-pad fire of Apollo 1, the excitement of the moon landing by Apollo 11, the amazing feat of getting Apollo 13 safely back to earth, the final visit to the moon by Apollo 17 and on through the shuttle program and to the ISS program today.  In 4 years of university, the only lecture I ever missed was to watch the launch of the first shuttle. (I later learned that lecture had been cancelled as most others had decided to watch the launch too).  I even became a diver to experience weightlessness and for the sense of adventure and exploration - I thought it might be useful if ever I got the chance to explain why I should become an astronaut. The Challenger explosion and the deaths of seven astronauts, any one of whom I so wanted to be, stunned me – it just could not happen, was not meant to happen.  But it did.

And so what? 

As an engineer, I was keen to learn why Challenger exploded; there were many reasons and stories that ranged from engineering constraints resulting from the width of a Roman chariot to the most alarming and most impactful - a simple breakdown in communication. Engineers had been warning the day before that freezing weather could be a problem for the seals on the booster rockets; they had been right – but ignored. Many lessons were learned from Challenger; and much good has come from that disaster.  

Winston Churchill said, ”Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  As people do great things or bad, experience success or disaster, it is so important that we take the time to learn from those events.  We individually have an expectation that someone is learning on our behalf, and indeed someone is, and that is why aviation, and marine, and automobile safety to name a few have improved so much over the years.  But as we look after our own businesses, all too often, we don't take the time to reflect on events and learn from our experiences.

The ability to learn is one of the key things that has helped make the human species so successful as we push the boundaries, explore, create and build. And communication is central to that learning, but it is also something that is always letting us down, whether it be through misunderstandings, ignoring things that were said, or simply not saying things at all. As individuals and companies, we grow through learning, we learn through sharing knowledge, and our ability to communicate is crucial to that process. As we explore and play we make mistakes as well as experience successes; we need to feel equally able and comfortable sharing both. 

Now more than ever, the successful company will be the one that learns faster than the competition.   Facing the reality that I probably won’t get to be an astronaut (although if anyone makes me an offer, I will seriously consider it), my mission these days is to help organisations learn how to learn faster than the competition, create cultures where people can communicate well and share their knowledge, and just maybe, to boldly go where no man/one/company has gone before.



Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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