Management Tips from Astronauts

What former Astronaut Chris Hadfield can tell us about managing things down on earth.

Being on the International Space Station (ISS) for a few months is a pretty unique experience. I’m pretty sure that nobody reading this will get to do it. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut, did spend some time there, and I’m sure you remember his Bowie cover Space Oddity.

Anyway, he has a book out (Amusingly at Christmas I bought it for my Dad, while he bought it for me). The book manages to make space travel both more alluring, and yet in many parts tediously mundane. It’s seemingly a lot of study, luck, and waiting for your mission. Also sounds hazardous to your marriage if you’ve anything less than the most understanding of spouses.

Alongside this he highlights a few management things, from his employers, or himself, that are worth remembering here on earth.

Confessing to Near-Misses

NASA, like every safety-critical system (or at least like they should) place great emphasis on being able to speak about near-misses. About the times that something nearly went wrong, so that changes can be made before it actually happens. (I’m not aware of how much of this was in place before the Challenger Launch Decision was made.)

I don’t work in safety critical systems, I work in computers and websites. Although much less severe, we do face  similar challenges. Do you have that random configuration utility that if you feed it incomplete or invalid configuration details, will honour those and wipe out an environment?

You shouldn’t.

In an ideal culture you should be able to say “I was messing about on stage, and noticed that I could break the system with the config tool” and that the reaction should be “Oh, great, let’s figure out if we can easily fix that, and if we can pop it in a sprint” and not the sometimes standard reaction from developers, inwardly judging the operator for using the tool wrongly, while outwardly declaring “Well then you should be more careful with that tool”.

These kind of things matter: You’re not always the ‘you’ in the office.  11am at the ideal caffeination level ‘you’.  At 3am, roughly extracted from sleep by PagerDuty, you’re a lesser ‘you’.

At those points, you’re flying on instincts and adrenaline.

Systems need to be idiot proof because we can all be idiots. (And thanks to a neanderthal leftovers, I think that sometimes the smartest people can be the best idiots).

What’s the BOLDFACE for this?

Documentation and procedures are another ongoing theme. Unsurprisingly every procedure and task in space are heavily documented, because you don’t want this to go wrong when you encounter problems. To paraphrase “you should always know what the next most likely thing is that can kill you, and how to go about stopping it”

The BOLDFACE bits are the critical bits of documentation that keep you alive. Again, IT is not life or death, but your run-books and documentation should have this similar level of priority.

No operator probably needs to know everything of every system, but they should know the procedures which if done incorrectly, (or the ones that done correctly) cause data-loss or system outages.

Some years ago, I was personally stung by changes between software versions: the version before didn’t, the version after wouldn’t, but the current version had some horrible behaviour, and I managed to cause a significant outage.

So on top of your documentation, when the operations become more or less dangerous than they were, make sure that people know about the changes.

Being a Zero

This is perhaps the best way I’ve ever heard anyone talk about the problems of being the new person on an existing team. Being a zero basically means “do no harm, make nothing worse”.

Mr Hadfield correctly states that everyone wants to be a plus-one. We want to do good, think we’re doing good and be seen to be doing good. At the start you’re eager, but that comes with impulsiveness which causes problems.

He talks about some times that in that eagerness, he ended up being a minus-one, someone who made things worse. That isn’t a good first impression on earth, let at alone on the ISS where you’re about to be stuck with those people for 3 months.

His philosophy is that aiming to be a plus-one will only turn you into a minus-one, so aim to be a zero and wait until you’re more certain before you start trying to add something.

Having seen people launch themselves into teams only to fail, this is one I entirely intend to live by.