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Lessons from NASA


A few weeks ago, I was invited to go down to Houston to work with a group from NASA as they were anticipating changes due to the Space Shuttle Program ending, the biggest change for NASA since the ending of Apollo 40 years earlier.

My job was to talk to them about the psychological tools they could employ to assist them to respond to those being laid off, to those who would be surviving the cuts, and to identify how to move forward during the uncertainty of what happens next for this vital agency.

As part of the arrangements for bringing me down, I received a personal tour of the Johnson Space Center. I was a young boy when the Russians put the first man into space (yes, I am that old). During the tour, I saw one of the Atlas rockets that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon and I sat at the controls of one of the space shuttle simulators.

But the part of the tour that I found most interesting was a little piece of organization employed since the early Mercury and Apollo missions.

In mission control, there are two separate rooms set up for each mission. One room is the room that I saw frequently when I watched Apollo missions as a boy. That room is filled with screens that report data from the space vehicle, with a mission director who monitors the information and keeps the mission on track.

There is a second room, located on the floor directly below mission control for a group of engineers. In this room, when there are difficult problems that must be solved, the engineers work to solve problems that might endanger the mission. In the movie, Apollo 13, they showed a scene where the engineers dumped a box full of random parts on a desk and said these were the things the astronauts had in the capsule to fix the problems they were encountering. That scene was a replication of something that actually happened in this second room. It is located directly below the mission control room because it was designed before the advent of sophisticated computer networks. There were a series of vacuum tubes where data from mission control could be put in the tube and sent down and the solution could be sent up in the original rooms. Now, of course, they exchange messages through the network.

The reason I found this so interesting is that I was going to talk to them about this psychological process during my presentation. The process for solving problems, in the human brain, is sophisticated but it is all consuming. When a person is dealing with a (real or perceived) threat, he or she will be fully immersed in reacting to the threat. It is very difficult to attend to anything broader, which is not related to the threat when this mindset is established. The functions of the brain when we are attempting to survive are separate from the way the brain operates when we are thriving. By separating the functions in the planning of a mission, the scientists at NASA freed the team in mission control to be able to continue to think about the broader mission (thriving) while a second team was tasked with resolving the problem (surviving).

This is a process that many companies could explicitly replicate with positive effects. Business is frequently stressful. When something goes wrong, it is important to understand that the resolution of a problem will occupy a significant amount of mental energy and focus. It should do that. But the problem is that the broader picture will get lost while the focus is on the resolution of the problem. By separating the two processes, you can keep your mission on track even during difficult times. If your business is in a survival mindset, it is only seeing part of the whole picture. You also need to have some individuals in your business dedicated to thinking about how to make your company thrive.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/sideshowblues / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. John Weaver published on August 3, 2011 6:12 PM.

Your Employee’s Maternity Leave is Over. Now What? was the previous entry in this blog.

Finally! Realistic Writing on Work-Life Balance is the next entry in this blog.

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