By some strange confluence in the universe, I found myself in a casino for two consecutive weekends.
I played Texas Hold ‘Em and wagered on horse races both for the first time. Now, I understood both from academic, technical, and statistical perspectives. I had even played successfully in cash-free simulations. But as that supportive Las Vegas dealer said to me, “Baby, you’ll learn better and faster if you play and risk some money.” She was right.
I’ve always understood that I was a risk taker. I learned early on in an exercise during a leadership development program at the Federal Executive Institute. They presented a wine-making exercise that teaches aspiring executives how to use data that they’ve gathered and apply the results of experimentation to learn how the right amount of risk can be translated into organizational success and competitive advantage.
Leadership competencies such as these are very important to an organization like NASA. NASA’s heritage demonstrates the powerful effect of the Ying and Yang of risk management and innovation which continues to spawn discoveries in space, fuel the passion for exploration in human space flight, and launch breakthroughs in technology. And as we continue on in our mission to inspire, discover, and explore, we will do so by balancing the sometimes competing forces of intellectual judgment and intuitive possibilities.
Too much risk aversion yields little reward. Too much innovation could be wasteful or even dangerous. It’s amazing that we are so creative and innovative in our youth and as we mature and gain experience, life beats it out of us. John Medina, in his book, Brain Rules, describes, in his Rule #12, how we are powerful and natural explorers and how babies model that behavior. He goes on to explain:
“The desire to explore never leaves us despite the classrooms and cubicles we are stuffed into. Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.”
Well now let’s see what we can learn from babies. First, they watch and observe an object; next thing you know, they want to taste it and put it in their mouths; and then they try to see what they can do with it, even try to break it.
First, the Betting CIO shouldn’t confuse luck with sound research and risk analysis. Just because you run across a highway and don’t get killed, doesn’t mean you’re skilled; it could mean you’re just lucky. For example, if you haven’t applied sound risk-based security management practices and nothing bad happened, that’s luck, not good management.
Second, the Betting CIO should follow the advice of the most successful gamblers, “Scared man can’t gamble”. It takes courage to innovate and operate. If your tolerance for risk is zero, well then it’s a non-starter. A system with absolutely no security risks is one that is turned off or unusable. Without risk, there is no fear; and without fear, there is no need for courage; and without courage, there can be no innovation.
Finally, the Betting CIO won’t learn anything without risking something. She must pick it up; play with it; and taste it. If there are a lot of unknowns and the stakes are high, perhaps she should make a few observations and then take the plunge in a scenario where the risk is lower. So, the Betting CIO should be observant, try some things, and set up safe sandboxes; but should not be reckless, scared, or paralyzed.
Oh, by the way, I lost just a little bit of money in horse racing and poker. But, I learned a whole lot more in my loss than I ever learned in reading and computer games. Leadership lessons in a casino? You bet!
Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center