Achieve the impossible – What CEOs and business can learn from an astronaut

Astronaut and space expert Tony Antonelli will be discussing how the space sector combines leadership and innovation and deals with the challenges of setbacks.

Achieve the impossible

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Organisations face significant challenges in keeping up with developments in cybersecurity, AI, robotics, and technology due to the rapid pace of technological advancement. The dilemma arises from the need to plan for the future while technology continues to evolve quickly.Here's why CEOs and business leaders might find managing technology challenging, and what they can learn from the experience of astronauts and space exploration where rapidly changing technology affects missions which might be ten years in the planning.Long-term Vision: Space missions are planned years in advance, so businesses need to consider both short-term objectives and long-term goals. Tony Antonelli stresses the important of establishing a clear vision and strategic roadmap for integrating planning and technology into a business plan.Advice for leaders and businesses? “Space missions involve rigorous risk management and contingency planning. Organisations should adopt a similar approach by identifying potential risks, evaluating their impact, and developing robust contingency plans to mitigate risk,” says Tony.NASA focuses on risk mitigation and transparency. It mitigates known risks, assesses the likelihood of unlikely risks, and maintain transparency by making it work and designs available to the public. It values safety and quality over speed and iterates with caution.

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Cross-Department Collaboration: When planning to send a team of people into space, there needs to be massive collaboration between departments and disciplines, often involving partner agencies in different cultures and countries. Similarly, organisations need to encourage collaboration between different departments to eliminate silos and harness the advantages of diverse thinking.Advice for leaders and businesses? “Space missions require ongoing learning and the need to adapt to cope with unforeseen challenges,” says Tony.  “NASA collaborates with a wide network of partners, both within the United States and internationally, including industry, academia, and businesses. This collaboration adds richness to the possibilities of developments and innovations.” Leaders can prioritise continuous learning and adaptability and help staff to upskill regularly.Speed of Technological Advancement: Technological advancements in areas like cybersecurity, AI and robotics occur rapidly. New vulnerabilities emerge, AI capabilities improve, and robotics become more sophisticated.Advice for leaders and businesses? Staying updated and adapting to these advancements requires continuous learning and monitoring.  NASA works closely with the private sector and contractors. The majority of NASA's work is done with contractors, and it constantly monitors and collaborates with them to ensure quality and safety in projects.“Space travel presents challenges in terms of resources, food, and living conditions,” Tony says. “NASA continuously works on developing new ways to grow food efficiently in confined spaces and sustain astronauts on long-duration missions. Partnerships with private organisations and universities contribute to research and advancements in these areas.”Complexity and Diversity: The technologies are complex and diverse. Cybersecurity threats evolve in sophistication, AI algorithms become more intricate, robotics integrate with various systems, and technology advancements span multiple sectors.Advice for leaders and businesses? Organisations need to understand the intricacies of these fields and how they interrelate. They need to think about how technology can enhance their business offering, and how it might disrupt and threaten their industry or the way they have previously done business.“Space travel research has led to numerous spin-offs and discoveries with practical applications,” Tony says. Examples include advancements in motorsport, engine technology, laptops (smaller and more cost-effective devices), MRI scans, Kevlar, lightweight materials, and studies in dyslexia, among many others.Talent Shortage: There is a shortage of skilled professionals in fields like cybersecurity, AI, and robotics, but also, thanks to the Great Resignation, across many sectors and industries. Finding and retaining top talent with the necessary expertise is a significant challenge for organisations.Advice for leaders and businesses? Making your company more diverse and equitable will attract new talent; nurturing and developing your existing employers and offering them promotions and assignments will feed the talent pipeline and give employees a reason to stay with you above and beyond salary or flexible working. NASA has won many awards for its management and diverse teams.“NASA has learned to manage cultural and diplomatic differences when working with partners from different nations,” Tony says. “It has specific programmes and exercises that help people work together and understand each other in a different environment. NASA values empowerment and diversity within its organization. It monitors and empowers their employees, ensuring that managers and leaders are empowering their teams. It strives for a culture where everyone is more effective and productive.”

How can you harness the motivation and desire for change?

Set clear goals: Using the example of humans going to Mars, Tony will discuss the importance of setting clear goals and the work involved in meticulous planning for space craft missions and space walks.Support your team: Motivating and supporting a team, especially in a long-term and challenging project, takes exceptional leadership. “NASA has endured many setbacks and has learnt from them. Avoiding a blame culture and looking forward after a setback can contribute towards an organisation thriving despite challenges,” says Tony.Stress-test your objectives and avoid a blame culture: Building strong teams that can collaborate under stress is crucial. Not everything goes to plan, and it is important that people are allowed to express opinions and raise concerns in a safe space.Prioritise a bias for action: Even if a project is at the early stages, showing that you are committed to it can have a positive impact. “Making progress is important because it helps to maintain staff morale and means that even if a plan has to evolve, it is being implemented effectively,” says Tony.Risk management and testing: managing risks is crucial, but there will always be some level of risk involved in any new direction or expansion. “The experiences of astronauts in dealing with isolation, unforeseen challenges, team collaboration and strategic planning for surviving in space can also have important applications for overcoming similar challenges on Earth,” says Tony.Diversity and inclusion: The Artemis programme has a specific goal of landing the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon's surface. This mission highlights the importance of clear objectives and staying focused on accomplishing them. “Space exploration has shown that with proper planning, seemingly impossible tasks can be achieved,” says Tony.Create a culture of trust: NASA has learned from long-term projects and setbacks that developing a culture of trust, valuing safety and quality over schedule, and empowering teams are crucial. It prioritises safety from the beginning of a project and encourages open communication to address any challenges.“The ability to sustain human life in self-contained space stations or spacecraft opens up possibilities for sustaining life in hostile environments on Earth,” he says. “The experiences of astronauts in dealing with isolation, challenges, team collaboration and strategic planning for surviving in space has also had an impact on our understanding of managing difficult environments on Earth.”For example, astronauts offered help and psychological support to the Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days after a mining disaster in 2010. Given the long-term need for planning and the huge role that technology plays in space exploration, there is much that businesses can learn from Tony’s experience and unique perspective.

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