How a conversation with an Astronaut can help your projects and traceability

on Saturday, 24 August 2013. Posted in goPMO Corporate

I had an opportunity to have a conversation with an astronaut. He spent six months on the international space station.  It was a fascinating conversation and story.  There were a couple of experiences he had that really stuck with me.  First, fire on a space station is a bad thing.  This unfortunately occurred during this astronaut’s tour of duty.  It was a horrific experience from his eyes. Second, your body reacts differently in a non-gravitational environment.  The body simply doesn’t need as much bone density or muscle to function in space.


What I found even more fascinating is that while I was absorbing the details and emotions of his stories and experience, I found myself immediately drawing similar behaviors here on earth in the context of delivering projects. 

Let's break this down a bit more to what I mean. 

Fire on a space station: normal rules don’t apply

Oxygen tanks, no window to open, no way to see when the lights go out, and the room filling with smoke, creates a heightened opportunity to panic.  911 doesn't work in space. Nor do second chances.  Add the fact that there is no gravity to move quickly and that escape pods are mainly fiction, you are instantly stripped to the fundamentals to save your life.  Maslow's hierarchy of needs are primetime.

In the event of a fire the astronaut must isolate the fire to prevent engulfing the entire space station while protecting the most vital resources for post fire survival such as oxygen and water sources.  Secondary to that would be communication equipment and food.  Oh yah, he is doing this in the dark, so he/she must know where to go and what to do by memory.

Project Delivery Translations

  • Know what is most important for project survival.  Don’t get caught up in the noise and the overly complex.  More importantly, don’t let your focus be diverted from the most important and most valuable components of your project.  The rest can be delivered later or not at all depending on whether it continues to pass the constant value check. 
  • Know your project.  Study it. Get intimate with the details.  Expect those involved to know not only their parts with the same level of intensity, but also the overall project's objectives, value, and impact.  This is only accomplished by repetitive review of the full project and how each part fit into the total picture. 

Your body reacts differently in space

With no gravity, and no simulated gravity, your body doesn’t need as much bone density or muscle to function in space.  Gravity is a key ingredient to the formation of our human skeleton.  Without gravity, our spine does not have as much pressure on it, our pelvic bones do not have to support as much weight, our muscles do not require as much effort to move the body, and our heart does not have to work as hard to feed the muscles and organs usually required to keep the body adequately in motion and upright.  The longer you spend in space the less muscle mass, and therefore skeletal mass, is needed to function.  As a result, the muscle and the skeleton experience natural atrophy.  The reentry to gravity is a painful recovery requiring more work than the average workout to reverse the atrophy affects.  

Intentional and purposeful routines are performed while in space to minimize the atrophy affects.  From simulating gravity with straps, to purposefully restricting airflow during a treadmill exercise, astronauts will do to get a fraction of what they would normally get on Earth.  Remember, nothing in space has weight.  So dumbbells, sit-ups, and push-ups do not have the same affect. 

Key Project Translations

  • You must approach your project with purpose and constant attention to how the parts that you may not see or think you rely on support your outcome.  The quality of requirements, the thoroughness of your work-plan, the traceability all the way through to testing results are all ingredients to maintain a strong project skeleton and well-toned muscle that can handle the rigor of change and the physical tests that projects often undergo. 
  • Understand who is necessary and who is not.  Don't let unnecessary resources, processes, or time free load on your project.  The natural tendency is to involve everyone, establish as much cushion or float as possible, and invoke the processes that everyone agrees with.  This realizes an incredible amount of waste.  Two key variables that cause projects to fail, too many people and too much time.  How many times have you been in a project meeting where half the people in the room said 100 words or less, and took no action or task away from the meeting?

Some Additional Considerations

Put tools in place that support what you need, that are easy to implement, and can be used across your organization without requiring major cultural shifts to adopt or accept. Simple is more easily deployed, accepted, and used to generate cooperation and productivity beyond your imaginable expectations.

3 three ingredients to project success from an Astronaut's point of view:

1)      Focus on what is important

  1. Drown out the noise
  2. Cut out the complex
  3. Simplify to the core

2)      Know what you are doing before you actually do it

  1. It’s not a fair fight
  2. Take every advantage you can

3)      Master the fundamentals

  1. Critical thinking and common sense wins the day


Robert Williams is founder of goPMO, which offers the healthcare industry a practical implementation approach for project management. After many years as an IT leader in the industry, Robert saw a clear need for greater efficiency in project consideration and execution. Thus goPMO provides both an easy-to-use self-serve project implementation tool and full-service project management consultation. A certified PMP from the Project Management Institute, Williams empowers healthcare organizations and PMO's to be catalysts for high impact and powerful project delivery.