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NASA: Reframing Risk With Curiosity

Risk is more than a four-letter word in government. There’s often wariness about taking on too much risk, which is understandable, because agencies are playing with hard-earned taxpayer dollars. And it’s not like IT leaders can just ask for a few more millions because of an errant project. Asking for more money means raising the taxes on Americans or stealing funds from some other program.

However, at the annual gathering for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), Adam Steltzner, Chief Engineer, NASA Mars Rover Curiosity, advocated for the need to go beyond the practical and actually lean into curiosity and risk.

“Early flight was embarrassing, and yet we kept at it,” Steltzner said. “If you ever go back and watch the early flight attempts they are dangerous, they were costly and they took copious amounts of time. Those early attempts looked far from practical. And yet we tamed the skies. And now it takes three hours to fly from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to its counterpart in Houston. That trip would have taken my mother sixteen hours and my grandmother three weeks.”

Steltzner noted that what looks impractical today could very well be the innovation of the future.

Does putting another rover on Mars in 2020 seem practical? No. But Steltzner noted you never know what innovation will come from a successful landing. In 2012, Steltzner was in charge of the landing team for the Mars Curiosity Rover, a feat that was on paper almost impossible.

Curiosity weighed 3 million times more than any previous rover, which caused the entry trajectory to increase in speed by more than 3,000 mph. So how did they accomplish the task? We all remember those thrilling photos of the NASA landing team after the Rover successfully landed on Mars.

“We brought every single person that had worked on a Rover in the past into one room, and we hashed out ideas in a hot, sweaty room for two days,” Steltzner said. “But we still wouldn’t have succeeded if we didn’t separate the people from the ideas they hold.”

The concept theorizes that a three-star general or the head of NASA’s idea is just as relevant in the brainstorming phase as an entry-level engineer. Ideas are not just the property of the C-suite, but all people.

By separating ideas from people, Steltzner built a culture of collaboration at NASA. And it was that culture that allowed the agency to take more risks, to be more curious. “When we came up with the new landing gear for the Curiosity Rover, we knew the idea sounded crazy,” he said.

To ward off skepticism, Steltzner would preemptively go into meetings with top brass and say, “Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset,” meaning he would warn them that their idea sounded crazy, but most great ideas do sound crazy at first. Flight sounded insane to the casual observer in 1930, but it foundationally changed the way we travel around the world.

We know that in order for agencies to innovative, to implement the next big idea, they have to take risk. But we also know that the government is particularly risk averse. Steltzner said if you change the way you think about risk — to a thought of curiosity — you can take some of the fear out of risk. You can make the risk your next great adventure, rather than focus on the bottom line.

The key for Steltzner when making the case for curiosity is to fully believe in what you are working on. “At 1:30 a.m. ET on Aug, 6, 2012, during a thunderstorm, thousands of people lined up on the streets of New York to watch the Curiosity Rover landing on the big screen in Times Square,” Steltzner said. “People knew there was a chance we would fail, but that’s not why they lined up. They lined up to see an agency take a chance, to explore unknown territory and test the bounds of human exploration. If you take great risks, but you put your entire effort into it, the public will get behind your innovation, they will show up to watch.”

What are you curious about? What will inspire you to take the next big leap?

You can see how other CIO’s across the government are taking on risk, here!


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