Managing Organizational Change – The Challenger and Columbia Shuttle Disasters Case Study


Organizational change refers to the process by which an organization modifies its activities in order to optimize performance as it strives to achieve the desired goal (Kotter and Cohen, 2002). According to Kotter,and Cohen (2002), organizational change is a very important aspect in modern organizations that are willing to meet market standards. Normally, organizations decide to implement change as a response towards a crisis situation or as a reaction to an increasingly changing environment. The success of organizational change depends on the ability of an organization to make necessary process adjustments, availability of resources, and efficient management capabilities (Palmer and Dunford, 2008). This paper analyzes organizational change management concept using The Challenger and Columbia Shuttle Disasters as the case study. The main issues addressed in the paper include images of managing change, types of change, challenges for change, resistance to change, implementing change, NASA vision and change, and sustaining change with reference to the case study.

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Images of Managing Change

The nature of change outcomes are influenced by various images of managing change. According to Palmer, Dunford and Akin (2009), there are six different images of managing change that direct organizations towards a successful change. The six images of managing change include directing, navigating, caretaking, coaching, interpreting, and nurturing. As far as directing image is concerned, it is the responsibility of the change manager to ensure that the required change is achieved by directing the organization towards the right direction (Palmer and Dunford, 2008). In the given case, the required change has not been achieved because the change managers have failed to direct the organization towards the right direction. Navigating image requires an organization to identify those changes that could be achieved immediately as well as those that could take time. NASA’s managers are supposed to navigate towards outcomes and choose those changes that could be achieved with minimum resources (Palmer, Dunford and Akin, 2009).

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Under the caretaking image, individual managers at NASA were supposed to take care of both internal and external forces in order to implement change successfully. As far as coaching image is concerned, the change managers at NASA have failed to shape the organization’s capabilities effectively which prevented them from building the right set of skills necessary to fulfill the desired change (Palmer and Dunford, 2008). Interpreting image and nurturing image require change managers to involve other organizational members for the change and facilitate organizational qualities that enhance quality change respectively, which NASA’s change managers have failed to do (Palmer, Dunford and Akin, 2009).

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Types of change

According to Weick and Quinn (1999), managers can adopt several types of changes to assist the organization achieved the required change outcomes. Organizational change is classified into two broad types namely; evolutionary change and revolutionary change. Evolutionary change occurs gradually and intermittently and it is meant for continuous improvement. Examples of evolutionary change include management by objective, total quality management, and socio-technical systems theory. On the other hand, revolutionary change is occurs rapidly and dramatically and its purpose is to keep an organization operational. Examples of revolutionary change include innovation, reengineering and restructuring. In the case study, ‘The Challenger and Columbia Shuttle Disasters,’ the space shuttle Challenger has exploded after rising into the sky on January 28, 1986. Comprehensive investigations revealed that there were both physical and management-related causes of the disaster. The events of the given case study show that NASA requires both evolutionary and revolutionary types of change because it needs to make continuous improvements in its operations while at the same time keeping the organization operational (Palmer, Dunford and Akin, 2009).

Challenges for change

For a successful change to occur the leaders of an organization must be prepared to take care of both internal and external forces that are affecting change. This has become the major source of challenges for change (Kotter and Cohen, 2002). Leadership is always the first challenge for change because the leader must possess effective change management skills that will allow proper utilization of capital and capacity in order to achieve the set goals (Weick and Quinn, 1999). In the given case, it is evident that there was a problem with leadership at NASA which contributed to the lack of successful change implementation. The management-related cause of the Challenger disaster is a disagreement between Morton Thiokol and NASA engineers concerning the launch of the Challenger shuttle. Engineers from both NASA and Thiokol had requested for the suspension of the launch of the Challenger shuttle but their request was ignored by the organization’s leaders.

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Another challenge for change is lack of focus that prevents the organization’s managers from effectively involving all members in the change process. Due to lack of focus, NASA’s leaders could not collaborate properly with the United States Defense Department in order to prevent similar disasters in future. According to Weick and Quinn (1999), lack of commitment is another challenge for change because it prevents an organization’s leaders from making choices that can lead to a successful change. Lack of commitment by NASA’s managers is demonstrated when they failed to consider opinions from other stakeholder of the organization.

Resistance to change

Resistance to change occurs when there are certain barriers that prevent a given change from being implemented. For example, resistance to change can occur when members of an organization lack willingness to support the proposed change (Kotter and Cohen, 2002). Another resistance to change is forcing members of an organization to support a desired change. Cultural issues can also prevent implementation of the desirable change. In the case study lack of change at NASA is associated with cultural barriers and lack of employee involvement. NASA’s organizational culture is to blame for the physical causes of both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. In addition, NASA’s managers failed to ensure that employee voices were heard (Palmer, Dunford and Akin, 2009).

Implementing change

Implementing change involves putting resource into action in order for the desired change to be realized. In order for a change to be effectively implemented, there must be proper communication between the organization’s management and employees (Van de Ven and Sun, 2011). In addition, managers of the organization must be able to foster a team culture. Again, an organization that wants to successfully implement change must identify and empower champions, provide feedback to the stakeholders of the organization, and provide positive reinforcement for all employees (Choi and Ruona, 2011).

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Following the Challenger shuttle disaster, recommendations were made requiring NASA to restructure its management and put control measures in place to ensure shuttle safety in future. Two years later, NASA made an announcement that necessary changes have successfully been implemented and the Safety, Reliability, Management & Quality Assurance programs in the organization have been strengthened. Surprisingly, another space shuttle Columbia exploded as it is just about to land at Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), the Columbia shuttle disaster has been caused by both physical and management-related factors, indicating that a successful change had not been implemented at NASA.

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NASA vision and change

The vision of an organization plays a very significant role when it comes to change implementation. NASA’s vision is To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” The organization aspires to improve people’s lives by protecting the planet through qualified explorers. However, the organization does little to promote change as it works towards realization of its vision. The Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters are associated with NASA’s failure to link its vision with the desired change.

Sustaining change

According to Palmer, Dunford and Akin (2009), an organization must be ready to go through an evolutionary process in order to maintain a continuous improvement and a revolutionary process that involves radical redesign and fundamental rethinking. For NASA to sustain change, it must maintain the desired quality level in all its shuttles, basically known as process control. In addition, the organization must conduct process improvement by removing any physical defects on the space shuttles. Again, NASA must conduct process redesign that involves systematic transitions to ensure that all space shuttles meet the needs of various stakeholders. Furthermore, NASA needs to perform process reengineering by ensuring that there are enough resources to accomplish the available tasks in order to enhance performance (Choi and Ruona, 2011).


Organizational change is very important in an organization that wants to succeed in its operations and move forward. For a successful change to occur, change managers must be conversant with the six images of managing change as well as the various types of change. Additionally, change managers must employ the correct strategies required to implement change and have the ability to overcome challenges and resistance to change. For an organization to benefit from a given change, it must be able to sustain change through evolutionary and revolutionary change processes.

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