Astronaut Uses Risk Management Thinking To Make the Impossible Possible

October 2013 Bonus Resource

By Diana Del Bel Belluz, M.A.Sc., P.Eng.

I’m often asked by risk management leaders how they can make a case for risk management. This article provides a perspective on the value of risk management from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who returned in May from the International Space Station as both a veteran commander and social media star.

Fulfilling this lifelong dream required intense focus, natural ability and a singular commitment to “thinking like an astronaut.” In his new book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield gives an insider’s perspective on just what that kind of thinking involves. According to his publishers, Hadfield takes his readers "deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible." His "entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises" are used to explain "how conventional wisdom can get in the way of real achievement".

In a recent interview, Hadfield was asked why some of the advice in his new book (e.g., expect the worst, sweat the small things) seems to lack a [popular] positive thinking vibe. In his response, Hadfield illustrates beautifully how exploring all the potential downsides of a situation is as critical for success as articulating an inspiring vision. You’ll notice his answer is similar to a traditional view of risk management thinking (for more, see the October 2012 Bonus Resource on Six Thinking Hats for Risk Management).

Here is a transcript of Hadfield’s answer:

“I’m a very positive thinker. I mean, I have to be I ride rockets... I’ve ridden three rockets to space. It helps if you’re an optimist.

But blind optimism is really the same thing as wishful thinking. You are not facing up to the reality of getting to where you want to be. You’re just kind of hoping you’ll win the lottery and you don’t even really buy a ticket.

If you actually want to get to the direction of your dreams, you have to take steps. You have to do things. If you just kind of visualize success, that doesn’t get you any closer. All that does is make you feel good briefly; I think.

But, instead, if you visualize failure, if you regularly say: Okay how is this not going to happen? What’s going to go wrong? What is scarring me out of this? [For example] if you have to give a speech in front of the United Nations, what’s scary about that? They’re going to laugh. They’re going to heckle. I’m going to embarrass myself. I’ll faint. I’ll forget to do up my fly. My pants will fall down. I’ll forget my speech. I won’t have it on the right piece of paper. Something scary might happen.

Let’s look at each one of those things that’s scary and really sweat the small details, in advance, when there’s time. Let’s go through each one of those and figure it out. [I’ll] make sure I have a good belt on my pants; and if it’s really worrisome, I’ll get suspenders also.

Address each one. So that now when someone says “introducing Chris Hadfield here at the General Assembly” and you walk up, no matter what happens, you have already simulated it really clearly in your mind. You’ve built a plan. You’ve built a back-up plan. You’ve practiced it. You’ve simulated it all going badly.

So when it starts to go well, you have a great comfort to it. And if it goes badly, you are not paralyzed by the fear of it. You are in fact relaxed and enabled by the reality of it.

(For more strategies to create a culture that is 'Prepared and Ready', see the Feature Article in this issue of the Risk Management Made Simple Advisory.)

Hadfield’s advice contains important lessons for anyone with ambitious goals. While he never actually uses the phrase risk management, his lesson on sweating the small stuff is a simple, yet powerful testament to the value of risk management thinking.

To watch the full interview with Chris Hadfield, click here

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Diana's Pick

Neuroscience and the Nonprofit Manager (written by Andy  Segedin and published in the NonProfit Times) shares some of the tips on how to counteract common biases and habits that impede effective decisions.

The article is based on a workshop that Diana Del Bel Belluz of Risk Wise presented at the 2015 Risk Summit organized by the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.