Complacency; Loss of Focus – Lessons from Elon Musk and a SpaceX Catastrophe, and a Prison Escape in New York State

marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies

FocusThe good news on attention comes from neuroscience labs and school classrooms, where the findings point to ways we can strengthen this vital muscle of the mind. Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.
It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds. Utter concentration demands these inner voices be stilled.
A reader’s mind typically wanders anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the time while perusing a text.
Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence


It’s not easy.

It’s not easy to be fully focused, fully present, at your job, every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week…

The ways we lose focus are unending.

You do not “keep your head down,” (golf); you do not “follow the ball all the way into the glove,” (baseball); you do not “focus eyeball-to-eyeball one audience member at a time” (speaking)…

I think of bad restaurant experiences. We sit down at the table, waiting for someone to serve us; waiting; waiting… Oh, there are people whose job it is to serve customers, but they stand around, seemingly giving no attention to focusing on the customers. They are at their job, but they are not doing their job.

Now multiply that in company after company, job after job…

In other words, for things to work right, the people at work have to give their undivided focus to doing their job, every minute they are at work…

I’m not sure why it is so easy to lose focus. But it is easy. And I do it, and you do it, and… people in jobs where losing focus really matters do it.

Recently, a SpaceX rocket blew up. It was the first such catastrophe after a string of 18 successful launches.

Here’s what Elon Musk had to say:

The head of SpaceX says one of the reasons his company’s Falcon 9 rocket blew up following takeoff last month was because his people have been sitting on their laurels. In a post-mortem conference call about the explosion, Musk said:
“This is the first time we’ve had a failure in seven years so, I think to some degree, the company as a whole became maybe a little bit complacent.”
from Bill McColl, Elon Musk’s ‘complacency’ problem

Elon Musk understands that there is no room for mistakes, any mistakes, in a rocket launch. Call this Six Sigma (eliminating defects) practiced perfectly.

Or, consider the escape from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York State recently. From the New York Times article by William K. Rashbaum, New York Prisoner’s Keys to Escape: Lapsed Rules, Tools and Luck:

But it is also a story of neglect by those who were supposed to keep Mr. Sweat behind bars; of rules and procedures ignored; and of a culture of complacency among some prison guards, employees and their supervisors, whose laziness and apparent inaction — and, in at least one instance, complicity — made the escape possible.

I think we can assume that the (non-complicit) workers at the prison did not want any inmates, certainly not these particularly dangerous inmates, to escape.

And, it is certainly true that no one at SpaceX wanted the rocket to explode.

But in both of these instances, there truly was no margin for error. When guarding dangerous prisoners, when building rockets headed to the space station, you have to get every detail right, you have to do everything right, every day and every time. Again from the article about Musk:

“He pointed out with this failure that a rocket launch is either 100% or nothing,” Newman says. “There’s no such thing as 99% successful because if something goes wrong you have a catastrophic failure such as what we saw.”

Maybe complacency is a cause of loss of focus. Maybe complacency and loss of focus are cousins, somehow connected to each other. But here’s what I know for sure – when I am all in, in the midst of work, (frequently under a demanding deadline), I get my work done. And when it is especially important work, I try to do it as thoroughly as I can, getting everything as right as I possibly can.

What if we all guarded against every hint of complacency, and focused — with full focus — every minute of every day.

I think it is safe to say that everything we do would be done more thoroughly, more correctly… the way it should be done.


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