Taking Strategic Risks in Space

Originally Published May 6, 2018

We launched a mission to Mars on Saturday, a risky mission – humanity’s record to land on Mars is only 40%. In fact, the US is the only country to ever successfully accomplish a landing and surface operation on this planet.

We think and talk a lot about risk at NASA. We are an agency whose very purpose implies that we *have* to take risks – do things that nobody has ever done before. NASA processes are built around that, have been successfully implemented many times, and have evolved as we learn. And, it has not all been great!

Robert Lightfoot, in his last speech as outgoing Acting Administrator told his audience that NASA needs to reconsider how we take risks, and do so deliberately and with focus. I think that everybody who works on big projects – especially for and within NASA. You can read full the full remarks on NASA’s website.

Here is what I learned about taking risk from the helm of NASA Science and during my career in innovation as a whole:

1) Innovation and iteration always go together. The kicker: to an outsider, especially one who is not innovative, iteration looks like failure. Yet, the world of innovation is not a linear world imagined in many management courses in highly ranked schools, and the most detailed plan does not imply the most progress – perhaps the opposite is true. But, most stakeholders do not understand this.

2) “Pounding risks flat” has opportunity cost, and they are often not part of the discussion. Yes, we can chase every option of failure we can think of, but that has real costs and slows us down. What are we *not* doing during this process? What are we missing by going slower?

3) Process does not eliminate the need for sound judgment and deep skill. Of the 10 signatures supporting a decision, how many indicate a detailed understanding and focus on the issue? These are the only signatures that count!

4) The best decisions are the ones scrutinized by great people with a diversity of view-points. Yes – innovative decisions require tension in the team. That implies a strong focus on talent and career growth and experiences. How do we attract and enable growth of our top talent? How do we learn from other stakeholders, such as commercial companies or other innovators?

5) Projects, like investments, should have a portfolio approach when it comes to risk. We need parts of the project portfolio where we focus on experimenting and learning. Because of that, we at NASA Science recently changed the way we manage lower cost science missions to include less oversight, fewer reviews, and higher speed. We are thus creating elements in our portfolio where we can take more risks and learn from innovators outside of the agency.

6) Finally, managing risk is a leadership challenge. Lacking risk tolerance is not the fault of our engineers and lower level managers, nor those tasked with risk assessment, but a reflection of values and ambition driving leadership. So, what are we saying about our projects, about risks? How do we react to iterations/learning experiences when they happen in our organization?

In summary, taking risks is a necessary ingredient of innovation and leadership! Thus, how we handle risk needs to remain a topic of discussion not just focused on “the how”, but also “the what” and “the why”!