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Silicon Valley vs NASA Decision Making

by edlu | on Jan 05, 2012 | No Comments

In the Silicon Valley rush to do everything fast, we often push things forward by “trying things out and seeing what happens”.  There is a lot to be said for such a style – it drives innovation.  At Google we called it a “bias towards action”.  But sometimes, especially in a crisis, it just leads to churn.  One of the things I learned as an astronaut at NASA is how (and when) not to hurry decisions.  One of the old-head astronauts told me when I was new that “no situation is so bad that you can’t make it worse by acting too fast”.  In fact, more often than not, if something didn’t kill you right away, you had time to gather some data and consider your options.  If things were stable and a critical decision is needed, it often paid to wait for more data that could inform your decision.

In 2003, when we lost Space Shuttle Columbia, we still had 3 people in orbit aboard the International Space Station.  But we knew we had no way to send sufficient supplies to keep the Space Station running indefinitely. Rather than abandon ship right away and bring the crew back down to Earth using the escape pod (Soyuz spacecraft), we calculated that we had a few weeks to make up our minds.  During that time, we worked out that we could manage to keep the Space Station running with just 2 people, as long as we could train them quickly enough to fly another Soyuz up to the Station.  When the word came back that this was just on the edge of being possible, I was informed on a Friday afternoon to get myself to Russia that weekend to begin training as a Soyuz flight-engineer (which was a story in and of itself!)  The decision making was methodical and thorough, and the end result was that we managed to keep the program alive for several years in this manner with 2-person skeleton crews.  Even now I have to remind myself that sometimes you can actually move faster by slowing down your decisions.

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