What you can learn about decision making from NASA space missions

First of all, Patrick Süskind, who wrote in his book “Aim at the Moon because even if you miss, you’ll still be among the stars” had no idea about astronomy. If you miss the Moon you’ll be some 149,213,487 kilometers from a nearest star. But there are situations when trying to hit the Moon comes useful.

The Enemy Of a Good Plan

Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and a war theoretician said once “The worst enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” It’s one of the most important business lessons I heard.

Making a business decision is all about getting rid of the unknowns or taking risks. Quite often we are forced to do both. Good planning means aiming to reduce the unknowns and getting ready for all the possibilities we can meet. Problem is, we don’t always know what is awaiting us out there.

The market is so ever-changing that almost every day we are faced with a situation we’re encountering for the first time ever. Just look at your job: if you come to work and each day do exactly what you’ve done for the past week, you’re a dying breed. Volatility and uncertainty accompany us even at “regular” jobs, not to mention entrepreneurs.

Problem is, we can’t plan to reduce this uncertainty. And taking unnecessary risks is not a good idea, either. What to do, then?

Hit the Moon

When NASA engineers learned from president Kennedy that they are to send a man to the Moon and bring him back safely, they knew they were challenged with something nobody has done before. Ever. The Big Unknown.

At the same time NASA hired dozens of analysts who were paid to predict possible outcomes with the uttermost precision. The Agency could have hired them to lay out a perfect plan for landing on the Moon. But they didn’t.

Instead, NASA started to plan a mission with a goal of… crashing into the Moon. No landing, no precise approach, no return. Just send the ship out there and smash it on the surface of the Silver Globe so there is nothing left.

Did NASA plan to send a suicide mission to the Moon? Nope. But sending a rocket for a one-way trip to the Moon solved two kinds of problems:

  • it forced you to answer big questions (is it even possible? how do we leave Earth’s orbit? how do we steer the rocket?)
  • it uncovered small questions that perhaps were not even asked when drafting the preliminary plan (in other words: you learned what you don’t know).

Do Anything

We often try to create something perfect in situations when something quite ordinary would do. Let’s say you design a logo for your client and try to answer the question which colors he likes. Instead of sending two separate, finished projects, perhaps sending just color squares would be sufficient? If colors are what you want to know, the squares will do. Crash onto the Moon, remember? Then you’ll think of what’s next.

Lacking the knowledge of what you don’t know can lead to decision paralysis. You have two people and you need to pick one to hire — they both did great on interviews and they both have the skills you need. They’re nearly identical, but one of them must be better than the other, right? What should you do?

Do anything. Do you really need to know which is better if they both have all the skills you need? Agonizing over this decision does not bring you closer to your real goal: putting their skills to work. And yet many people do just that. Despite a clear notion that any decision in this situation is better than no decision at all.

Think about it. There are moments in your life when you have to make an important decision. If you’re stuck with similar options, just go with “do anything”. Because no matter what you choose, it will either work for you all the way (you’ve landed on the Moon) or will bring you closer to the right answer (you’ve crashed on the Moon).