Making HUGE MISTAKES, and being okay
June 24, 2009 12:28 PM   Subscribe

What are stories like this about making huge mistakes, and then recovering from it?

Inspired by this story about Citicorp Center, I've been looking for other stories about people who made mistakes which would have huge, disastrous consequences, and how they handled both the ethical situation of what to do when they discovered it and how they acted to prevent disaster. I'd like to put together a short set of them addressing the same issues with a few conversation-starting questions for a luncheon discussion group, but I'm having trouble finding for good examples. Bonus points for suggestions related to software.
posted by ADoubtfulTrout to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Tylenol Murders Case?
posted by Roach at 4:29 PM on June 24, 2009

Thats a great article on the Citicorp centre, pity about the font!

I don't have any direct links, but in my experience this is mostly a cultural thing within an organisation. Some places I've worked have had a very big blame culture, so everyone would try and hide mistakes. Admitting to mistakes was always seen as a bad thing.

I'm always one to put my hand up straight away when I've made a mistake, in my mind its important to fix the problem, work out why it happened and make sure it never happens again. So in an organisation where people normally hide their mistakes it can come as a shock to have someone put up their hand and say "yep, that was me, I made that problem, lets fix it".

Where I work now the culture is the opposite, trying to hide your mistakes and not admitting to things is distinctly frowned upon.

But regardless of where I've worked, that mindset of admitting my mistakes has always stood me in good stead and gotten me positive feedback. Its not always easy, especially when a lot of money and professional pride is on the line, or the pressure is on - but in my mind its always the best thing.
posted by Admira at 5:17 PM on June 24, 2009

You're probably not going to believe me, but NASA deals with these kinds of scenarios routinely. If you follow missions closely enough*, you find that they are constantly encountering new problems while astronauts are on orbit (lives at risk) and furiously but methodically figuring out solutions and getting everyone safely back home.

During the Hubble mission last month, they had an important electronics box (ASA) fail during liftoff, and they immediately went into analysis mode, figuring out short term solutions, long term solutions, everything they could think of. Those NASA managers all look calm and boring at the news conferences, but those guys are often dealing with some really intensely dangerous problems.

Frankly this happens all the time in engineering disciplines where the public is at risk -- airplanes, bridges, electrical power, etc. Something new comes to light, engineers analyze it and figure out solutions, a bulletin is issued, and other engineers all around the world work to apply the solution. This kind of process is underway right now with Air France 447, for example. States have professional engineering licensing programs (well beyond just getting a degree) to ensure that engineers are qualified to make these kinds of life or death decisions -- and respond appropriately and productively when they find new problems.

Probably not exactly what you meant, but here we are :)

* Go to, subscribe to the L2 premium service, and look at some of NASA's internal engineering presentations. I can point you to some good ones if you're really interested, but you have to subscribe to L2 first.
posted by intermod at 8:18 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Software: "Accidental Empires" by Robert X. Cringely. "Hackers" by Steven Levy.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:25 PM on June 24, 2009

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