Decision Making in Extreme Conditions

Organizational Transformation

Great, almost super human, decision making is the universal desire these days with the world in crisis. Leaders are being asked to make decisions that are outside their experience and beyond their skill level. Although the bar for decision making doesn’t get lowered much when we are just trying to compete and survive in our complex and fast moving lives. So, when you spot a book title, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, it is hard not think “this might help.” Rocket scientists are on that short list of most admired occupations for being really really smart. They combine analytical science with innovative art and apply it to very complex problems.


Ozan Varol, former rocket scientist and current law professor, breaks down key components in the rocket scientist tool kit and presents an interesting and motivating package of ideas in the book. He combines a fair number of space rocket examples featuring NASA and SpaceX with examples from leading edge technology companies, Hollywood movies, and sports.  Interestingly, many of his approaches and examples are found in other  books that have nothing to do with rocket science. Much of thinking like rocket scientist requires pursuing bold ideas, working on the right problem, and learning from failures and successes. Sound familiar? The difference lies more in the extreme operating conditions of space and the significant risk to individual lives and large investment sums. 


The high profile failures he examines like the Challenger and Columbia disasters occur in part because the rocket scientists stopped thinking like rocket scientist. Once the NASA decision makers and engineers wandered into a “business as usual” mode, bad things happened.  


A powerful concept from the world of science is falsifiable or how you prove a hypothesis wrong. Scientific theories are not proven right they are just not proven wrong. So, before a scientist announces an amazing breakthrough, she wants to try as hard as possible to disprove her own theory. Varol points out this is difficult to do. It is our human tendency to fall in love with our own ideas and often goes against organizational needs to get things done quickly and for less cost. 


Proper and rigorous experimentation are critical for space travel to make sure all the components of the system work. Varol emphasizes NASA’s practice of “test as you fly” despite the challenges of replicating the harshness of operating equipment in space. Testing your favorite ideas not by putting together the perfect slide deck but actually making or delivering a product or service is the best way to shine light on the positives and negatives of an idea. 


Varol also suggests “kill the company” exercises designed to look at your strategy or product from a competitor’s perspective who is trying to beat you. Another tool, premortem, starts from the point that your project has died and then asks you to work backwards to identify all the things that could have caused it.  Both tools highlight that too often we focus on what is right with our ideas and see our role as advocating for their acceptance. 


An additional principle that is not unique to rocket science is “Nothing fails like success.” A contributing factor to the catastrophes of the Challenger and Columbia spaceships was the marginal success of critical parts in previous flights. In both cases, defective designs had not created significant damage so decision makers determined they would continue to operate successfully. A change in the operating situation tragically altered the margin of safety. Also, in both cases lower level engineers expressed concerns but were ignored or overruled.


Sometimes smart people are impressed with their own intelligence. But sometimes we are just overwhelmed with system complexity and complications and it becomes hard to differentiate between critical and inconsequential. We feel the pressure to make progress, especially in environments that value squeezing time and cost. We want to see our ideas contribute to solutions and we don’t always respond the best when others attack our ideas.


In the great successes that Varol highlights, a common theme emerges that reveals that he may have mistitled his book. The really big successes like moon landings and exploring Mars were not about thinking like a rocket scientist but rather thinking like rocket scientists. The team and organizational approach is critical to creating an environment where ideas are constructively taken apart, tossed out, stress tested, redesigned, and refined.  If you build a team around these principles, you can land on the moon without anywhere near today’s technology. But if you create a culture where systems and approaches are things to be protected rather than consistently and rigorously analyzed, you never see the little, insignificant item that causes your whole world to come crumbling down.