As is typical of human nature, a crowd of over a thousand people gathered to watch the explosion. Due to safety concerns, the crowd was moved back a quarter of a mile from the site of the explosion. As if on cue, the crowd whooped and hollered in the first seconds of the detonation.
Then terror set in as large chunks of whale blubber began to rain down on the spectators. Even worse for Thornton, a large chunk of whale blubber crushed the top of the Army explosive expert’s brand-new car (remember he was the one who warned about using too much dynamite). This story continues to receive attention to this day, 48 years after the event. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there are four key things to learn from this mistake (and all mistakes):
- Don’t forget to ask tough questions. Before a person or team starts down a certain path, it would be good to ask tough questions. Has this been done before? Do we have the talent and expertise to make this happen? What are our other options? If this fails, do we mind if it appears on the front page of the newspaper? Take time to think through the solution that is being proposed.
- Don’t get overconfident. Time and time again, organizations allow over-confidence and hubris to creep into their mindset - and then bad things happen. The business that is successful remains humble. A learning organization allows questions and discussion from top to bottom.
- Don’t dodge the mistake. George Thornton never talked about his mistake in blowing up the whale and only granted one interview in the mid-nineties about the incident. He never got comfortable with how things turned out. Without the slightest smile or wink, he made the single statement, “This thing blew up in my face.”
- Start with the simpler solution. We make things so much more complicated than they need to be. Many times, the simplest solution is the best and easiest and should be pursued first.