On the eve of the launch, an emergency teleconference had been called between NASA and theMorton Thiokol Corporation, the contractor for the shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket motor. During the teleconference, Thiokol engineers pleaded with superiors and NASA to delay the launch. They feared cold temperatures would cause a failure in synthetic rubber O-rings sealing the rocketmotor’s joints. If the rings failed, themotor could blowup. The problemwas simple and familiar: Rubber loses elasticity at cold temperatures. Freeze a rubber ball and it won’t bounce; freeze an O-ring and it might not seal. Engineers recommended strongly that NASAwait for warmer weather. They tried to produce a persuasive engineering rationale, but their report was hastily thrown together, and the data seemed equivocal (Vaughan, 1995). Meanwhile, Thiokol and NASA both faced strong pressure to get the shuttle in the air:
Thiokol had gained the lucrative sole source contract for the solid rocket boosters thirteen years earlier, during a bitterly disputed award process. Some veteran observers called it a low point in squalid political intrigue. At the time of the award, a relatively small Thiokol Chemical Company in BrighamCity, Utah, had considerable political clout. Both the newly appointed chairman of the Senate Aeronautics and Space Science Committee, Democratic Senator Frank Moss, and the new NASA administrator, Dr. James Fletcher, were insiders in the tightly knit Utah political hierarchy. By summer 1985, however, Thiokol’s monopoly was under attack, and the corporation’s executives were reluctant to risk their billion-dollar contract by halting shuttle !ight operations long enough to correct !aws in the booster joint design (McConnell, 1987, p. 7).
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Meanwhile, NASAmanagers were experiencing their own political pressures. As part of the effort to build congressional support for the space program, NASA had promised that the shuttle would eventually pay for itself in cargo fees, like a boxcar in space. Projections of pro”tability were based on an ambitious plan: 12 !ights in 1984, 14 in 1985, and 17 in 1986. NASA had fallen well behind schedule—only “ve launches in 1984 and eight in 1985. The promise of “routine access to space” and self-supporting !ights looked more and more dubious. With every !ight costing taxpayers about $100 million, NASA needed a lot of cash from Congress, but prospects were not bright. NASA’s credibility was eroding as the U.S. budget de”cit soared.
Such was the highly charged context in which Thiokol’s engineers recommended canceling the next morning’s launch. The response from NASA of”cials was swift and pointed. One NASA manager said he was “appalled” at the proposal, and another said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch? Next April?” (McConnell, 1987, p. 196). Senior managers at Thiokol huddled and decided, against the advice of engineers, to recommend the launch. NASA accepted the recommendation and launched Flight 51-L the next morning. The O-rings failed almost immediately, and the !ight was destroyed (Bell and Esch, 1987; Jensen, 1995; McConnell, 1987; Marx et al., 1987; Vaughan, 1990, 1995).
It is deeply disturbing to see political agendas corrupting technical decisions, particu- larly when lives are at stake. We might be tempted to explain Challenger by blaming individual sel”shness and questionable motives. But such explanations are little help in understanding what really happened or in avoiding a future catastrophe. Individual errors typically occur downstream from powerful forces channeling decision makers over a precipice no one sees until too late. With Columbia and Challenger, key decision makers were experienced, highly trained, and intelligent. If we tried to get better people, where would we “nd them? Even if we could, how could we ensure that parochial interests and political gaming would not ensnare them? The Columbia investigating board recognized this reality, concluding, “NASA’s problems cannot be solved simply by retirements, resignations, or transferring personnel” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 195).
Both Columbia and Challenger were extraordinary tragedies, but they illustrate political dynamics that are everyday features of organizational life. The political frame does not blame politics on individual foibles such as sel”shness, myopia, or incompetence. Instead, it proposes that interdependence, divergent interests, scarcity, and power relations inevitably spawn political activity. It is naive and romantic to hope organizational politics can be eliminated, regardless of individual players. Managers can, however, learn to acknowledge,
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understand, and manage political dynamics, rather than shy away from them. In govern- ment, politics is a way of life rather than dirty pool. Chris Matthews calls it hardball: “Hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs” (1999, p. 13).
This chapter seeks to explain why political processes are universal, why they won’t go away, and how they can be handled adroitly. We “rst describe the political frame’s basic assumptions and explain how they work. Next, we depict organizations as freewheeling coalitions rather than as formal hierarchies. Coalitions are tools for exercising power, and we contrast power with authority and highlight tensions between authorities (who try to keep things under control) and partisans (who try to in!uence a system to get what they want). We also delineate multiple sources of power. Because con!ict is normal among members of a coalition, we underscore the role it plays across organizations. Finally, we discuss an issue at the heart of organizational politics: Do political dynamics inevitably undermine moral principles and ethics?
POLITICAL ASSUMPTIONS The political frame views organizations as roiling arenas, hosting ongoing contests arising from individual and group interests. Five propositions summarize the perspective:
• Organizations are coalitions of different individuals and interest groups.
• Coalition members have enduring differences in values, beliefs, information, interests, and perceptions of reality.
• Most important decisions involve allocating scarce resources—deciding who gets what.
• Scarce resources and enduring differences put con!ict at the center of day-to-day dynamics and make power the most important asset.
• Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining and negotiation among competing stake- holders jockeying for their own interests.
Political Propositions and the Challenger All “ve propositions of the political frame came into play in the Challenger incident:
Organizations are coalitions. NASA did not run the space shuttle program in isolation. The agency was part of a complex coalition of contractors, Congress, the White House, the military, the media—even the American public. Consider, for example, why Christa
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McAuliffe was aboard. Her expertise as a teacher was not critical to the mission. But the American public was getting bored with white male pilots in space. Moreover, as a teacher, McAuliffe represented a national commitment to universal education. Human interest was good for NASA and Congress; it built public support for the space program. McAuliffe’s participation was a media magnet because it was a great human- interest story. Symbolically, Christa McAuliffe represented all Americans; everyone !ew with her.
Coalition members have enduring differences.NASA’s hunger for funding competed with the public’s interest in lower taxes. Astronauts’ concerns about safety were at odds with pressures on NASA and its contractors to maintain an ambitious !ight schedule.
Important decisions involve allocating scarce resources. Time and money were both in short supply. Delay carried a high price—not just in dollars but also in further erosion of support from key constituents. On the eve of the Challenger launch, key of”cials at NASA and Morton Thiokol struggled to balance these con!icting pressures. Everyone from President Ronald Reagan to the average citizen was clamoring for the “rst teacher to !y in space. No one wanted to tell the audience the show was off.
Scarce resources and enduring differences make con!ict central and power the most important asset. The teleconference on the eve of the launch began as a debate between the contractor and NASA. As sole customer, NASA was in the driver’s seat. When managers at Morton Thiokol sensed NASA’s level of disappointment and frustration, the scene shifted to a tense standoff between engineers and managers. Managers relied on their authority to override the engineers’ technical expertise and recommended the launch.
Goals and decisions emerge from bargaining, negotiation, and jockeying for position among competing stakeholders. Political bargaining and powerful allies had propelled Morton Thiokol into the rocket motor business. Thiokol’s engineers had been attempting to focus management’s attention on the booster joint problem for many months. But management feared that acknowledging a problem, in addition to costing time and money, would erode the company’s credibility. A large and pro”table contract was at stake.
Implications of the Political Propositions The assumptions of the political frame explain that organizations are inevitably political. A coalition forms because its members need each other, even though their interests may only partly overlap. The assumption of enduring differences implies that political activity is more visible and dominant under conditions of diversity than of homogeneity. Agreement and harmony are easier to achieve when everyone shares similar values, beliefs, and cultural ways.
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