The Power of Precedent

I recently finished Diane Vaughn’s The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Today I started Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used. Both books reminded me of the power of precedent. Once a precedent is set, it’s remarkably hard to overcome.

At NASA, one issue with O-Rings was that they had seen damage before. NASA had a precedent of O-Ring damage starting with the first shuttle flight. As the incidents and level of non-fatal O-Ring damage increased, NASA was concerned but kept launching because they had a precedent of O-Ring damage.

My simple consulting example comes from experience. We had a rule. When you travel to visit a client the first time, never stay in a crappy hotel. If you do, you’ll be stuck in a down market hotel for the rest of the project. That first trip is the precedent and overcoming it later takes a lot of effort.

My point is simply don’t forget how powerful precedent can be when making decisions. In the case of NASA, it took a tragedy to overcome it.

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