At the core of every successful space mission is a team that is defined by their technical abilities, their perseverance, and especially their optimism – to fuel an entire journey of exploration and discovery.
Motivated by their curiosity, they start to work on a project with a can-do attitude that may seem entirely unrealistic to many. As they go through iterations of their design, they hit hurdles, often putting into question their very ability to do this mission. Yet they stick with it, often defying odds, and holding on to the vision of the lofty goals they hope to achieve.
This is the power of optimism – bringing to life something that is much harder than it looks, and to have the resilience to continue despite the challenges. There is no question in my mind about the crucial role that optimism plays in what we do.
However, if someone asks me about the biggest I see in developing missions to not only be technically successful, but also to be within anticipated cost and schedule, the answer may surprise many: excessive and blinding optimism.
Imagine yourself in a room listening to a team that is making a presentation about a new project – a project that truly makes your heart sing. They talk about the amazing possibilities and impacts, and they talk about their elegant technical solutions. Generally, and without any bad intent, teams will tend to over-stress the benefit and under-emphasize the challenges that go into this new design. If they don’t get through this buy-in phase, there is no mission!
If you look at similar initial presentations from the point of view of wisdom gained during the 5-6 years of the development of this mission, this pitch – if not challenged by facts and deep independent analysis – becomes a jump off point that leads to deep regrets and agony for years to come. I have been in presentations where I wish I had caught that the assessments were simply unrealistic – assessments that can haunt an otherwise amazing engineering team for decades as they can’t match the reality to the original hope.
Unmanaged excessive optimism can be harmful to the team in the long run and a reason for mistrust by the broader community. It is therefore critical to address this issue and do so in ways that make success more likely. I have seen leaders address this quandary in multiple ways.
The simplest but least successful way to tackle it is to take the optimists entirely out of the equation. Clearly, this solves the of the rude awakening of a project that was over promised and underfunded. But, it also pours the baby out with the bath water. Without optimism, and the desire to stretch, we remain in the comfort zone and ultimately lose the very thing we are supposed to attempt things that have never been done before.
The second path is to identify and manage the impact of over-optimism using several specific tools.
1. Create a trusted environment that encourages the team to voice their worries
It is very easy to never get bad news, especially if you create an environment that publicly shames or even attacks the first person who brings up these points. Instead, reward those who are comfortable identifying and discussing their worries. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create an environment in which worries can be discussed without adverse consequences. A trusted environment does not happen automatically but requires vulnerability and humility from all sides.
2. Deliberately create an independent and dispassionate view of the project
Independent views are critical when we seek to achieve excellence. Having the input of a team that is free to analyze and speak their opinion is a welcome addition into the discussion. However, it is critical that the input truly is — and demonstrably remains — independent throughout the process. Otherwise, such independent assessments may make us feel better, but they surely do not add the desired value. It is also critical that these independent assessments focus on the core of the idea and not some bureaucratic aspect that is peripheral to the question whether or not a given mission is thoughtfully designed and planned. Otherwise, independent reviews become maligned entry points to bureaucratic creep.
3. Continually build out the startup team by adding diversity of opinion, approach and backgrounds
As a team starts maturing and moving towards detailed design and implementation, the optimistic leaders on the team continue to have a critical voice. But the team needs to improve both in depth and breadth. A team with a broadened viewpoint is less likely to fall in the trap of group think or sliding into an “us vs them” approach that tends to slow down the resolution of problems and may even grow small issues into huge challenges, while losing trust among stakeholders.
Just as anything in life, moderation is key. As we continue to embark on these journeys of exploration, we must apply that same mantra. Optimism has great benefits and has been the igniting fuel to many success stories in space and beyond. But we should also stay vigilant to creating a culture where challenging viewpoints is welcome and the norm.
I have made many mistakes over the five and a half years at NASA and over time have gained more experience about this important topic. I hope you too can take something from lessons and apply them to your own worthy endeavors.