Use Chris Hadfield’s incredible leadership advice to achieve IT liftoff

The astronaut everyone’s still talking about headlines an Allstream and Cisco event that covers the risks and rewards of aiming high

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Chris Hadfield technology CIOs

Chris Hadfield could be anywhere on Earth, and the technology around him will still probably be more advanced than what he experienced in outer space.

Speaking to a gathering of technology professionals hosted by Allstream and Cisco Canada on Monday night at the MaRS Discovery District, Hadfield offered a unique glimpse into the rudimentary IT that faces most astronauts — equipment that makes the average small or medium-sized business in Canada seem bleeding edge in comparison.

“The (space) shuttle was primitive. It was designed in the 1960s and 70s,” he explained.  “The entire computer memory on board was only 128K. Imagine how delicate that software was. If you wanted to change one thing on that display, that could change where the engine points.”

Despite that, of course, Hadfield has managed to achieve things most will only dream of, including two shuttle missions and commanding the International Space Station (ISS). For businesses that sometimes seem cautious about using technology to grow or gain competitive advantage, Hadfield offered both a reality check and lots of inspiration.

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Aim high — sky high — to get project buy-in: Space travel is dangerous and costly. On paper, it might not seem to make sense to try and reach the stars. Hadfield argues real leaders use those stakes to their advantage. “You have to somehow get people to buy into an over-arching objective. Something that rises above what’s going on right now,” he said. “Let people shape decisions at their own level, but the endgame is trying to do something that is new to the human experience.” For those of us on the ground, innovative use of collaboration technologies may be a way to take a stab at that.

Skills are meant to be shared: Hadfield and his crew always wanted to return home alive, but he said the real hope was that the experience would be so good everyone would immediately want to begin the four-year process of going into space again. “That was our agreed-to measure of success,” he said. However in space travel, you have to build everything on competence. In other words, everyone in a small six-person crew had to learn how to do everything on the space station, from managing a robot arm to cleaning the toilets. “In business — and even in school and kind of in our culture — we tend to be competitive with skills. But if these are your last people on Earth — and we should probably think of it that way in business — any skills you can give to your team can increase its chance of success.”

Authority can empower: When Hadfield’s team discovered an ammonia leak on the ISS, “it should have been paralyzingly scary,” he said. It wasn’t, because before the mission began he gave management of the station’s airlock to a crew member who constantly improved the procedures around it. That meant when potential disaster struck, the crew as prepared to conduct a spacewalk to deal with it. IT departments, take heed: delegation is a powerful tool when used effectively.

Be a master of your own planet: Hadfield said he was struck when a colleague referred to feedback from Mission Control by saying, “Earth said we’re supposed to do this.” We all know about the challenges bureaucracy can bring, but sometimes you need to transcend that. “Earth’ is going to go home at the end of their shift,” Hadfield pointed out. “You have to cooperate — get buy-in where you have time — but the real authority lies within the crew.”

Inject failure everywhere: CIOs may be tempted to emphasize the hoped-for successes of a technology project, but Hadfield suggested the opposite approach to actually ensure a smooth execution. “We visualize failure like you would not believe. We hardly ever visualize success,” he said. That helped considerably when there were problems with lasers on the ISS, among other incidents. “Get the right people around the table– tech, mission control, astronauts, designers, the PR people. Get them in on the simulation and inject failure.” Then practice your emergency moves like crazy.

Despite his extraordinary experiences, Hadfield didn’t see what he has gone through as much different than the struggles of his audience of technology decision-makers. “We have a combined enemy of complexity and cost,” he said. The answer is to find whatever will unify the team. “Give people a challenge that forces them to rise above the norm, and a timeline that forces them to accept the risk.”

For even more down-to-Earth advice on working as a leader, download The Enterprise Collaboration eBook: A How-To Guide to Unified Communications, from Allstream. 

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  1. Mike Strople : Comment les chefs des Services informatiques canadiens peuvent équilibrer risques et avantages | expertIP - May 12, 2014

    […] Allstream a récemment organisé une soirée en compagnie de Chris Hadfield afin qu’il nous fasse part de son expérience d’astronaute dans l’espace et des leçons […]